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What “Growing Old Together” Means in the 21st Century

bride and groom walking together

Brian and I are by no means old yet. But at forty-five (him) and thirty-seven (me), with kids ranging from seven to sixteen, I can confidently say that we are Grown-Ups. By now we know what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we know enough to basically ignore the latter and just get on with it. I know, for sure, that the lessons that make us fundamentally better people are almost always very hard, and usually we have to learn them (the hard way) more than once. I know, for sure, that I will survive—and I don’t need to be defiant about it. My husband doesn’t have a single gray hair on his head, and I can give the treadmill a sound kick in the pants if need be. No, we are not old just yet, but we aren’t young either, and we certainly are no longer made of rubber, or memory foam, or some stuff that relentlessly springs back into place. And we aren’t getting any younger.

In fact, my birthday is coming soon, and this year, for the first time ever, I’m not just feeling better/wiser/smarter. I feel some of that, but I also feel older. Something our society values is running through my fingers and I can’t hold onto it without being pathetic, but I also can’t just accept it either without feeling diminished somehow as a woman. And why can’t I just give America’s youth-worshipping, photoshopped, plumped, pumped, and celebrity-styled popular culture a giant middle finger and get on with it? Because culture is deep, man. And two of my aforementioned weaknesses are Vanity and Insecurity and that toxic double helix seems to be wrapped around the silvery strands of my DNA.

“Growing Old Together” has such a beautiful ring to it, and I so want to live out my entire journey with Brian. Somehow that phrase makes me imagine intimate fall afternoons on porch swings, holding hands with a hard-earned sense of easy companionship. My visions of growing old together look a lot like a travel magazine. I have dreams of the cobblestone streets we will meander together, the wonders we will behold, the hobbies we will take up. We promise our (horrified) children that we will still be having (wild!) sex many times a week long after they have moved out, and I can’t help but believe it!

But the romance of “Growing Old Together” is predicated on the gauzy assumption that we will do it with elegance and grace. My wardrobe will suddenly contain more timelessly chic pieces, my hair will be silvery (not the funky, frizzy dishwater gray I hide with buttery blonde highlights), and of course I will keep some semblance of my girlish figure. Brian will be an active, distinguished gentleman with kind eyes and cutting wit—a well-seasoned man of the world. In my worst case scenarios we are at least cute and kitschy as we wear matching outfits with impunity, sit on the stoop, and grouch about “kids these days.”

What I never imagined when thinking about “Growing Old Together” was discomfort, pain, fear… insecurity… ugliness. In my dream of Growing Old Together I am never standing in front of the mirror wondering if my outfit is too sexy or too dowdy for this in-between time. I am never asking my husband to feel a lump on my cervix to see if he thinks it might be cancer.

Nowhere in these visions is the part where we struggle with the constant, eclipsing pain of advanced arthritis of the hips (him) or flaring hemorrhoids (me… sorry). I fear this is not the kind of intimacy and comfort that ends with wild sex several times a week. I worry that our expanding intimacy will not be enough to offset my expanding waistline, spanx notwithstanding. The word grace is a big one… it implies that one has surrendered vanity, and through humility finds enduring beauty. It contains the idea of elegance, simplicity, and generosity. Kicking and screaming, gnashing of teeth, and clinging don’t figure anywhere. The truth is, I’m not feeling graceful. I am feeling embarrassed and helpless and mildly pissed off.

Luckily(?), I’m not alone in this. As I write, my devastatingly handsome forty-five-year-old athlete of a husband is using a cane, getting wheelchair assistance in the airport, and counting down the days until we go to Birmingham, England so that he can have his hip joint dislocated, filed down, and fitted with a titanium cap. I’m pretty sure he’s feeling some of the same things I am right about now—probably more acutely.

This miraculous procedure will return him to a version of himself able to surf and play tennis and climb Mount Kenya with me. I am so grateful that we live in a time when such things are possible, and I am actually looking forward to being with him through this—even if it does involve wrestling his six-foot-six frame into compression stockings for a few days. I know that for me, going through this thing together hasn’t diminished Brian in my eyes—I find his courage and grit inspiring. I admire his endurance. It hurts me to see pain in his eyes, and so I’m grateful for the cane or the wheelchair that relieves that suffering and makes him more able to engage with me. Every time I see him I get a thrill.

Although this surgery will essentially turn back the clock for Brian, this time of limping towards Birmingham has given me a high-definition glimpse into some of the reality of Growing Old Together. It is also giving me an opportunity to learn about what it might mean to do that gracefully. Perhaps the beginning of the path to grace is trusting that our love really is reciprocal and surrendering even more to the truth of our commitment.

And clearly, I need to add a timelessly chic piece to my wardrobe, stat.

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