Growing older — it’s a dying art

None of us thinks we’ll ever be old. When small children are asked what they want to be when they grow up, the idea is an abstraction — they might as well say what they would do with three wishes. Teenagers don’t believe their parents understand what it feels like to be filled with joy, consumed with angst and wanting to scream, all at the same time. Even though we’ve been there.

Single young adults, meanwhile, tune out conversations about raising kids. Middle-age adults experiencing the aggravation and heartbreak (and good fortune) of having older parents rarely acknowledge that their turn is next — and too soon for comfort. And the elderly, many of whom still identify with a younger version of themselves, won’t or can’t deal with their day-to-day reality.

Our collective denial about getting older makes it hard to relate to any age category other than our own. When we are young, older people seem out of touch. When we are old, looking back is like remembering a foreign language, where we still get the gist but miss the rich nuance.

Call these birthday reflections (mine was last week). As much as I try simply to relax and enjoy the day, I invariably fall into a contemplative mood: Is my life going in the right direction? Is it moving in any direction at all? Am I doing enough for my family, or too much? How much of my suffering is by choice? Is it still possible to change?

Am I old?

Daily distractions usually drown out these kinds of questions. But not this year. Even though 52 is not a benchmark age, it feels like one, and I know why: the prospect of my 13-year-old daughter going to high school next year. It’s months off, but the preparations are in high gear. I’ve known this event was coming, of course, but that doesn’t mean I am ready.

While the approaching milestone is really more hers than mine, I am stepping up to claim it anyway. I would argue that life transitions are much harder on the mother. The child thinks only about what is ahead. The parent also understands what has gone.

“We know we’re getting old when the young draw away and the old draw nearer,” goes the Yiddish saying.

I suffer from my own “age problem,” meaning I sometimes forget how old I am. I’m not talking about being off by a year, but more like decades.

When I have beer in my grocery cart, I still half-expect my ID to be checked. When I’m driving my two teens and their friends around, jumping into their conversations, I’m confident they find me super funny and interesting. And when I recognize a name in a j. lifecycle announcement, it takes me a moment to register that I’m not reading about someone I once knew, but that person’s son or daughter.

Reality: It’s not for the faint of heart.

Not long ago, I read a letter to the editor, signed by a doctor, whose unusual last name matched that of a boy I knew in Hebrew school. I had a crush on him, and he may have felt the same, which he signaled by shoving my desk over backward one day after I playfully teased him. I answered with a hard kick to his shin. Our parents were called. His mother said, “Boys will be boys.” Even at 11, I knew that was sexist, and I was done with him. But I never forgot his name. And now his son is a doctor.

My mom frequently used to say, “Time marches on!” It was one of many such adages that made little sense to me as a child. Like, duh! But I think I get it now. Life inexorably moves forward, whether or not we’re ready.

I’m excited for my daughter and her potential to do and experience amazing things. She is confident, beautiful and ridiculously talented, and I have little to worry about (one must always reserve room to worry).

But if she is growing up, then that means so am I. And inevitably, naturally, that will bring changes in the role I play in her life, and she in mine. I haven’t gotten that script yet, as it’s still being written. But when opening day comes and the curtain goes up, I’ll be ready. Somehow, I always am.

Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s managing editor. She can be reached at