Reflections on making the final bend around the circle of life. By K.M. Brown
Photo by Artyom Kabajev on Unsplash
Old age has often been characterized as a return to childhood, and if it’s that, I’m at the beginning of my second one now. This is the good part, the part where I wake up every morning with nowhere to be that’s not of my choosing, the part where the day stretches gloriously ahead of me like a canvas, waiting for a brushstroke in any color I choose.
I’ll settle each morning on a task I’d like to complete and devote myself to it. I’ll enjoy the work, or it will frustrate me. I’ll see the project through to completion, or I’ll abandon it. I’ll play with my pets and do a few chores. I’ll read and learn about the world, then write in order to incorporate new facts into a larger body of knowledge, new ideas into a larger worldview. I’ll do whatever I want, just as I did when I was small.
But childhood isn’t all fun and games; it’s also a time of limited power. Some of that is physical (I can’t open a new jar of pickles any more easily now than I could when I was five). Some of it is social, the assumption from others being that you’re not operating at full capacity, “yet” or “any more,” depending on which end of the lifespan we’re talking about. Some of it is condescending but powerless, you accepted it instead of fighting back when you got pinched on the cheek or patted on the head when you were a child. Now, people call me “hon.”
You’re seen as cute but not as competent. When you’re in your first childhood, what you think doesn’t matter as much as it someday will. When you’re old, what you think doesn’t matter like it did when you were in your prime. It’s not okay to sexualize you anymore after 60 or so, but I haven’t decided if that’s a desirable feature of returning to childhood or not.
There is a major difference between these two life phases. In my first childhood, when the circle of life began, I looked forward to growing older. I wanted to be an adult. I wanted to drive a car and have a job. I wanted my own home where I could arrange thing as I saw fit and paint the walls in any hue that called to me. I wanted to set my own bedtime and some nights, to skip a bath.
But what have I got to look forward to now?
When I was a young adult, I went with my mother to visit someone in a nursing home. The corridor that ran from the building’s entrance to her friend’s room was lined with old people. Old people bent over in wheelchairs. Old people in tattered nightgowns and robes. Old people staring straight ahead through eyes that didn’t register our presence. Old people drooling. Old people shuffling past us in gritty-bottomed slippers. Old people who needed a diaper change. Old people who needed a bath.
Some of them were clutching dolls.
“If I’m ever in that condition,” my 92-year-old mother quipped. “I’d like to have a Shirley Temple doll. Please remember that.” I thank god she’s avoided that fate so far. but will I be as lucky?
When I was small, my parents used to tell me to enjoy my childhood. It would be the one time in my life when I was carefree. That always left me wondering whether their own childhoods had been much different from mine or whether they simply did not remember the truth of it, that childhood is in no way a carefree time. It could have been the latter. They were “getting up there in years” so their memories were fading. That’s how I saw them then.
Neither childhood is carefree, but there are elements of feeling supported in both. First our parents took care of us, if we were lucky. Then, the internalized parents who set us up for success by pushing us to save for retirement will take care of us in the second, if we heeded their words. We’re finally allowed to spend, without penalty, the money we socked away in a 401K and accumulated through our participation in the Social Security system. My husband even has a pension; it’s small, not enough to support us, but it provides a little pocket change the way our allowances did when we were kids.
If I’d known then what I know now. That’s the refrain of the second childhood. But we can’t get “then” back. Even its memory is dissipating like a puff of wind, like a breath, like a whisper. If we’re wiser, as well as older, we won’t waste our energy trying to grasp it. That’s futile, and we need our energy for other things.
We need it to pour into this phase of life, the return to childhood, a childhood we can truly appreciate this time around because we understand its gifts. And we understand its limits, too; I don’t need my parents to tell me that it will all too soon end. A few more seconds on the clock of time, a few more orbits around the sun, and I’ll go back into the oblivion from which I came.