I'm Afraid to Grow Old, But 'm More Afraid to Die Young

Friday, October 30, 2015

A girl I graduated from high school with died yesterday.

I didn't know her at all, not really even a little bit. We were in homerooms together, & our lockers were next to one another because my last name starts with Bi & hers started with Ba, but that was about it. I don't think we ever even exchanged a single word, & I'm willing to bet that she probably never knew my name. She looked similar enough after all these years, though, that I recognized her the couple of times I saw her around town, including once this summer.

I didn't know her, so it's not fair to say that I'm grieving or mourning or experiencing any sort of pain related to my personal relationship with her, or anything like that. But still, I can't stop thinking about her.

We weren't even Facebook friends, so I don't know how she died, aside from what I've heard from mutual friends, but someone told me they think it might've been an aneurysm or something. It seems like it was sudden, the scary kind, the kind nobody sees coming.

And all I can think about is how afraid I am, sometimes, to grow old - but how much more afraid I am, I think, to consider that literally any day could be the last, for me & for anyone else I know.

There are so many days - more than I care to admit - when I panic about aging. I'm only 31, but I added the "only" on quite recently, to try to make myself feel better about the numbers. I remember when 31 sounded terribly old, when I'd read letters in Glamour magazine written by 31-year-olds - or, hell, from 25-year-olds - & think, "Hey, lady, shouldn't you be reading Redbook or something?"

Getting old seemed scary & sad & more than a little bit pathetic, which is the sort of privileged view of a youthful mind that believes age will never come to her.

In fact, I used to loathe the idea of aging so much that there was a time when I prayed to a God I didn't believe in that I would die before age 30. I didn't want to be old, didn't believe old age held anything worth sticking around to see. I literally prayed at night to be dead by 30.

But the older I got, the less old I felt. Today, truly, I'm enjoying my thirties - but when I think back on all the years that came before, they feel like so long ago, like someone else's life. The people I grew up with are parents now, homeowners now, successful business people now, milestones I've not yet reached & maybe don't even want to, but ones that make me take a good look around & realize all over again: We are adults now.

When did this happen? How did we get here? We knew better, perhaps, but we still believed it would never happen to us. We wouldn't be old.

I never wanted to have to grow up,but here I am, 31, too panicky to sleep at night because all I want to do is stay alive. But then, I think, still: What about getting old? Like, really old? Do I want that?

I think about my grandmother, who was the best kind of old. She was vivacious & active & traveled to Japan alone & then one day had a pain in her elbow that turned out to be a vicious, fast-spreading cancer. I made the 16-hour drive from New Hampshire to Ohio to visit her for what I knew would be our last time together, & despite her obviously deteriorating health, she was in so many ways the grandma I'd always known: talking about getting out, talking about buying an apartment, talking about what came next.

And then we went for a walk down the hallway of her care facility, & she started coughing & couldn't stop. As my then-boyfriend ran to get help, my grandmother looked up at me, angry & frustrated & weakened by illness, & said, "Look at me. Katy, I've become an old woman."

My heart has never broken the way it did at that moment, & it's a sentence that has long haunted me. For me, it was a reinforcement of what I'd always believed: that getting old is scary & awful.

My grandma would be horrified to hear that, though, because she wasn't the kind of person who believed in fear. She never cried. She didn't sit around freaking out, & she chastised me when I did. She did not have an ounce of anxiety, like I do. She just lived her damn life - painting, traveling, volunteering. And when she got old enough that most of her friends had died, she just made younger ones so that she could keep on living at the same level & speed she always had.

Even though I'm afraid of growing old, I want to live like my grandma lived - to be 82 years old & surrounded by my family, by love, by the knowledge that I have done as much as possible. 

But then, some girl from homeroom dies at 31 of a maybe-aneurysm & all I can think is, "There is no guarantee."

Old age may sound scary, but I think dying young is even scarier. There is no guarantee that you'll get to live out a full life & die at 82. There is no guarantee, even at 31, against aneurysms or cancer that starts as tennis elbow or being hit by a car or being one of those people whose freak death makes headlines for its sheer absurdity, despite the tragedy beneath it.

I have always been afraid of death, which is probably why I prayed to be dead by 30. It's why, prior to my current relationship, I've been an historically terrible girlfriend, disinclined to commit - because I don't want to be left behind, like my mom was, or to leave anyone behind, like my dad did. I know how death fucks up everyone in its wake, & I neither want to cause that pain nor suffer it. Both sides of death are terrible, aren't they?

But the only other option is to live - to just wake up every day & put on your pants & your game face & to do whatever you've been doing & hope you're doing a good enough job of it. You have to try to do it in such a way that if you die tomorrow, no one will feel regrets on your behalf, but that, if you live until you're 90, you won't look back on your many years with your own regrets.

You have to just do it & try not to think about whether you're next & what people will say at your funeral & how your death would affect the people who know you, even some random girl from high school whose name you never knew - all of which are the kind of macabre things that run through the mind of a person who is terrified of death.

You have to whisper the girl from homeroom's name under your breath & hope that she lived a life she loved.

And then you have to go do the same.

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