Letty Cotttin Pogrebin, Age, 74
With permission from Letty, we post this excerpt from her book,
How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick, © Letty Cottin Pogrebin. PublicAffairs, 2013.
MY SUMMER OF BLISS
JUNE 9, 2009. MY AWESOMELY BIG BIRTHDAY wasn’t as bad as I’d
expected. Taking stock of my life and circumstances, my main sensation
was astonishment at having reached this age at all, much less in
good health and fine fettle. Seventy! Incredible! Surreal! Formidable!
A number I never thought I’d see. My mother died at fifty-three. I had
already outlived her by seventeen years. I thought I had dodged the
bullet. I thought I was home free.
My well-being was nothing short of intoxicating. I had more energy
than women half my age. I could still walk miles at a fast clip
without puffing, get by on five hours sleep, or pull an all-nighter to
meet a deadline without paying for it the next day by drag-assing
around. Though deeply dismayed by world events—that summer it was
the economic downturn, the Israeli invasion of Gaza, the reelection of
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to name a few calamities—I
was utterly content with my own little patch of reality, my marriage,
family, work, and friendships. No, wait—at the risk of sounding like a
complete cornball, what I felt in June 2009 was much bigger and more
buoyant than contentment: it was euphoria.
As a birthday gift to myself, I started a journal in which I hoped
to snare a few drive-by epiphanies about aging, chronicle my daily
activities, and secretly crow about how amazed I was to find myself happy at seventy.
(Secretly because I’m too superstitious to tempt the Evil Eye by crowing out loud
about anything good.) As poets know, the smooth topography of pleasure is harder to
render with originality or precision than the craggy landscape of sorrow,
but I wanted to try to put into words how it felt to have finally made peace with my years.
Seventy, quite simply, was my best birthday since I turned ten (ahh!
double numbers, at last!). It was even better than my twentieth, when I
celebrated my liberation from my teens by moving into my first singlegirl
apartment in Greenwich Village. After turning twenty-one and
the thrill of casting my first-ever vote for John F. Kennedy in the 1960
presidential election, none of my birthdays seemed worth celebrating
because each brought me one year closer to the age my mother died.
But it was the decade upticks that really sent me reeling.
Thirty was the first shocker. As a refugee from the “Never trust
anyone over thirty” generation (Abbie Hoffman, the high priest of
rebellious youth, was a Brandeis classmate of mine and a fellow cheerleader),
finding myself on the uncool side of the divide was deeply
disorienting. Forty unsettled me because I felt as if half my life was
gone and I hadn’t accomplished enough. Fifty triggered time tremors
so seismic I felt compelled to make sense of them in a memoir entitled
Getting Over Getting Older (which, in fact, I hadn’t). Sixty piled on the
existential stress plus physical depredations that accumulated daily.
But seventy was different. Seventy was sublime. On June 9 the universe
shifted on its axis and my half-full glass became a bottomless jug. To
borrow one of Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, I began to “Accentuate the positive,
eliminate the negative, and latch onto the affirmative.” Though
still obsessing over the swift passage of time, still feeling compelled
to make each day count, still worried about what might go wrong
(an occupational hazard for Jews of my generation) and which of my
loved ones might die (a fear common to those who’ve lost a parent in
childhood), I also found myself reveling in the glory of the good stuff.
Suddenly, the name of the game was gratitude. My default verbs were “savor”
and “celebrate.” I was alive and well at seventy! Who’d have thunk it?
One weekend in July, my husband, Bert, and I and our immediate
family—a lucky thirteen altogether—gathered on Shelter Island to celebrate
my birthday. After a beautiful dinner at sunset, all of us seated
at a long picnic table overlooking the glistening harbor, we adjourned
to the house. I sat back and allowed myself to be feted and fussed over
by my husband, son, daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren, who
all plied me with original poetry, skits, speeches, and songs while I did
nothing but embrace the bliss.
My journal’s woefully inadequate attempt to wrestle that evening’s
pleasure into prose includes this banality that at the time struck me
with the force of an Aha! moment: “I realized tonight in the midst of
being lavishly celebrated that what entitles me to enjoy the blessings
of this precious family is the fact that I’ve used up seventy years of my
time on earth by amassing loved ones, life, and memories. That’s the
trade-off: gain life, lose time. The past is our reward for spending down
our future. To this, my grandkids would no doubt say, ‘Well, duh!’ but
its obviousness doesn’t make the thought less profound. At ten and at
twenty, I had years ahead of me but none of this lived bliss.”
At seventy I was too busy counting my blessings to count my years.
Instead of doing my usual number on myself and ruminating on the
relatively short time I have left—sixteen-point-five years, according to
the actuarial tables for the average seventy-year-old white American
female—I focused on how much can happen in that period of time. You
can grow a large tree in sixteen years, start an internet company and
make or lose a fortune, create a whole person from nothing—Justin
Bieber, for example, or my six grandchildren, none of whom existed
sixteen years ago. In sixteen years you can change deeply entrenched
national habits and cultural perceptions—for instance about homosexuality
or smoking. In sixteen years an America that never had a
female Secretary of State can see three different women in that office.
Sixteen years was time enough for me, a confirmed Luddite weaned
on the typewriter and the turntable, to adjust to computers, cassettes,
floppies, CD-ROMs, VCRs, VHS, and DVDs. In sixteen years I’ve conquered
inventions that initially seemed indecipherable and daunting, among
them Google, Facebook, iTunes, iPhoto, Hulu, Pandora, and Netflix.
When I looked back to where I was in life at age fifty-four, it
seemed a very long time ago, and this persuaded me that the next sixteen
years can be similarly commodious, abundant, and fully packed.
A journal entry in late August seems especially poignant given how
oblivious I was to what would happen to me a month later:
This summer has been the most contemplative, inner-directed time
of my life. After decades of activism and hyperproductivity, my
contentment and quietude require no product but their own reward.
I can’t explain why I feel so serenely happy. Perhaps it’s because I
have the luxury of being able to say that I don’t want anything more
from life than what I already have. I just want more of the same.
Possessed of this new, bone-deep calm, I watch the lake ripple and
shimmer like the folds of a satin skirt and follow the sun until it sinks
behind the rim of the mountain and pigments of coral, aqua, and
gold dapple the evening sky. I sit and think and feel and cherish.
In the book I’m reading, Lost in Translation, Eva Hoffman
precisely captures my feelings: “I have stumbled into the very center
of plenitude,” she writes, “and I hold myself still with fulfillment,
before the knowledge of my knowledge escapes me.”
That’s where I spent every day of the summer of 2009—at “the very
center of plenitude.” Then I got diagnosed.