This fall, a photo of our eighteen-month-old grandson was featured on the Facebook page of a local cider mill as he took a big bite of one of their pumpkin-spice donuts. "Do you remember your first donut?" the caption read. With his beatific expression and crystal blue eyes, it's no wonder they picked him as their poster child. "Dexi loves his donuts," his momma says.
My husband, Ed, and I were "poster children" in a different setting several years ago. Though I've never seen our photo, I'm sure we didn't look nearly as cute as Dexi. Let me tell you how it happened . . . .
We were hiking above the tree line toward Grinnell Glacier at Glacier National Park in Montana under a blazing sun on an unusually warm day—84 degrees. Other hikers we met looked disheveled and sweaty, too. "I've never felt it this hot at this altitude," one said. We'd come to Glacier National Park for the first big trip of our retirement because our daughter, Barbara, told us we needed to go "before all the glaciers melted." Under this sun, it seemed the glacier was, indeed, shrinking before our eyes.
We were seventeen days and six hard hikes into the vacation, and I was feeling resistance from a body not yet reconditioned after too many hours in front of the computer during my last years at work. I couldn't jump up and go after long periods of inactivity like I once could. My feet hurt, the tendons in my calves were tight as bowstrings, and my lungs burned. We'd brought along our hiking poles, which helped us keep our footing on the steep terrain, but it was still hard going. Ed said that this strenuous hike of eight miles with an elevation gain of 1,840 feet was probably our limit.
At one point, the hiking trail crossed a waterfall that came straight down the mountainside to our right, sluiced across slippery shale, and then tumbled to our left over a sheer cliff to the valley below. Yikes. I walked carefully through the stream, trying not to look left.
After crossing, I held my red bandana under the falling water and then tied it, dripping, around my neck. Half-an-hour later, however, according to Ed, my face was still red as my bandana. I felt every bit of sixty-two years old. "Sixty is not the new fifty," I said to him. I paused to ease the catch in my side.
An energetic-looking woman approached us from the other direction on the trail. "Excuse me," she said enthusiastically. "May I take your picture?"
"What?" I asked.
"I'm teaching a class on healthy aging," she explained. "I tell my students they need to use walking sticks and not be afraid to push their limits."
I snorted. "Us? Looking like this?"
"Yes," she said.
I hesitated. "Oh-kay-ay."
I wondered if her students were adults or youth. I tried not to think about twenty-somethings with carefully-styled hair sitting somewhere in an air-conditioned classroom looking at a photo of these two geezers with red faces and sweat-stained shirts. I remembered a time two years before when Ed and I had been making our way slowly down the trail from the Maroon Bells, two peaks in Colorado, when a trim young woman in black tights and light hiking shoes looked at our hiking poles and heavy boots with pity in her eyes.
I hate pity.
"You'll be old someday," I had said to her in my mind. "Just you wait."
Still, after the photographer of healthy aging clicked our picture, I had to admit to a secret pride. At least we were still on the trail.
And, that evening, as we sat down to dinner at the Two Sisters Café in Babb, Montana, to rainbow trout and huckleberry aioli with grilled yellow squash, zucchini and red pepper, garnished with a cool slice of watermelon, and a hot popover, I felt a profound sense of gratitude. Such bounty, after such beauty.
Even though my feet still ached, my veins tingled with fresh mountain air, and my mind scrolled through a continuous internal slide show: high meadows spread with wildflowers; the grainy gray ice of the glacier; and the deep, silty, greenish-blue water of Grinnell Lake.
Now, when I fuss about the indignities of aging—more aches and pains, more medical appointments, more worry about whatever is coming next—I will try to remember these beautiful scenes. I told Ed that maybe I should also resolve not to complain about my ailments. But I'm not sure I want to do that. Why give up one of the perks of aging?
"That's what old people do, anyway," Ed said. "Talk about their visits to the doctor and how many times they get up in the night to pee."
Besides, you can learn a lot from such conversations. I may need to know who to call for advice: where to buy a lighter canoe; which surgeon does the best hip replacement; and how to survive the night times when a beloved companion dies.
A ninety-year-old parishioner told me once, "Getting old isn't for sissies."
We need each other's wisdom and forbearance now more than ever.
So, whatever season of life you inhabit, whether your skin is soft and supple or dry and lined, may you give praise for the beauty you have seen. May someone listen kindly to your complaints. And, whatever our age, when other people look at our faces, may they see the grace of self-acceptance and gratitude for our span of days.
"Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom." – Psalm 90:12 (NIV)
Playlist: "Otherwise," read by the author, Jane Kenyon, published in her posthumous collection, Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, 1996.