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H is for ‘hellebores’ — and other reminders of my mortality

Gaining years, shedding all that matters less, and embracing the gifts of aging.

The Boston Globe, "Ideas and Opinions"

May 9, 2021

I am 77 years old, a fact that astonishes me. But I am fine, thank you. I can hold a plank for three minutes and usually finish the New York Times mini crossword puzzle in two. Of course, I realize that the great good fortune of my health is temporary. I don’t know how many more times I can hurry to the far side of the pond to watch the sunrise or distribute several cubic yards of compost around my garden, one shovelful at a time. The end is not in sight, but it’s somewhere ahead, around a few corners.

I already have some symptoms of advanced years, such as the misplacement of nouns. When I want to write or say something, the words usually bubble up, but not always. Yesterday, I could not remember what hellebores were called. (For the uninitiated, these are early-flowering perennials, members of the buttercup family.) When a memory lapse like that happens, I can often see the first letter and flip through options, hoping my missing word will slide unobtrusively into the lineup: hydrangea, hyacinth, heliotrope, hibiscus, honeysuckle. Sometimes I know the number of syllables, but that rarely helps. The only way to coax the missing word into consciousness is to stop looking for it, start thinking about something else. And then, like a child bored with hiding when everyone has stopped looking, out it pops!

When I was in my prime, there was no lag time between reaching for a word and grasping it. Partly the change is a matter of pace, comparable to the physical slowdown that is apparently inescapable. Reading a novel or a recipe takes me longer. So does riding a bike up a familiar hill. Someone told me that’s because we lose quick-firing muscles over time. You’re not necessarily weaker when you get old, but you are necessarily slower.

Misplacing “hellebore” feels like a more complicated problem. When I complained to the best gardener I know, he said, “Wait for the spring. When you see plants growing, you’ll remember all their names.” That’s a gentle and quite lovely resolution. I won’t wait, of course. I’ll Google “Lenten rose,” the common name forhellebore, and then I’ll come up with a trick for next time, like “Forgetting is such a hell of a bore.” The whole process gives me new respect for how we remember. I am learning to construct memory detours, and if all else fails, I am learning to wait for what may eventually come on its own. The missing word, the misplaced thought, and the slower climb do not just encourage patience; they require it.

Another sign of my age is that I do one thing at a time now. I was for many decades a queen of multitasking, but I can’t do that anymore. I cannot, for example, listen to the radio while reading the newspaper. I don’t hear the radio if I’m reading, and I can’t make sense of the newspaper if I’m listening. This might be just another example of slowing the pace, but it sure feels like the loss of a competency. And yet, there is something wonderful about doing one thing at a time, narrowing my focus to just this conversation or this song or this tree.

Some dimensions of my life feel richer. I feel closer than ever to the people I hold most dear. The roots of most of those relationships run deep, and the past we share is very long by now. Remember how we used to get the giggles when we were kids? (And still do sometimes, gray-haired and wrinkled and laughing so hard our eyes tear up.) Remember how we used to drive through the night when the boys were little and asleep in the back of the station wagon? (The boys are middle-aged men now, with adult children of their own.) Remember the 350-mile bike trip we took without a decent map? (When we asked directions at a fire station with 20 miles to go, all the firefighters came out to applaud us.) Each memory and each remembering of it binds us more tightly. I used to have business acquaintances and casual friends. Those shadowy figures have faded away and my commitment has deepened to those I most value. Each is a person I choose, a person I cherish, in contrast to all the people who just happened along and lingered when I was younger.

I used to agonize about whether I was living up to my potential and fulfilling the responsibilities of my privilege. But age is a great simplifier. The possibilities of what I might do and who I could be have narrowed. Decades ago, people asked, “What do you do?” and, rightly or wrongly, I heard that as “What are you contributing? How important have you become?” But at my 50th college reunion, I was struck by a change in attitude. Other people’s achievements no longer seemed terribly relevant. The question had become ”How are you doing?” That sounded less like a challenge and more like an expression of interest and camaraderie.

People like me have mostly aged out of professional competition and fickle friendship and really hot sex. Our passions are quieter and steadier, and we have a conscious, tender affection for life itself. Knowing they will not go on forever makes each of my morning walks more precious. I mow the lawn and rake the leaves and plant still more daffodil and narcissus bulbs without taking these pleasures for granted. In the long run, eating well, sleeping eight hours, and getting plenty of exercise will not protect me. Something is bound to go wrong. So now, while I’m still walking and writing and transplanting primroses, I feel a steady, nearly constant gratitude.

I want to follow Mary Oliver’s suggestion in her poem “In Blackwater Woods”: “to love what is mortal; / to hold it / against your bones, knowing / your own life depends on it; / and, when the time comes to let it go, / to let it go.”

When the time comes, I hope I’ll have made my peace with letting it go. Meanwhile, better to cherish the moment, hold the plank, spark laughter in those I love, and fill my shady garden with hellebores.

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