National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 9, 2004

Sign of aging can also be heralds of new life


I stare at my younger friend’s nails. Pure white above the finger, smooth, shiny with clear polish. Mine, I know without looking: yellowed as an old smoker’s teeth, ridged, dull because I never take time to “do” them.

Two phrases fly into my mind: “keeping yourself up” and “letting yourself go.” I have always loathed this pair of opposites, seeing my gender’s fight against age and ugliness as an unnecessary shame. But since 40, I’ve noticed new signs of decrepitude every few weeks. They are tiny signs: vision blurring, hair thinning, waist thickening, the skin on the back of my hands crinkling like an alligator purse. I try to ignore them. But I am beginning to understand the scale and intensity of women’s battle, and the vast expenditures on camouflage.

Another friend, this one in her early 50s, e-mails that she and her husband are off for Italy. “Don’t get pinched too often,” I warn her gaily -- and she replies with the confession: “It makes me sad to think that my days of being pinched are probably over.”

I zap back my own confession: I’ve been shopping for a formal, for a black-tie New Year’s dinner that is not likely to recur. Strapless is out; not only are my chubby upper arms dimpling, but the surgeon who removed a melanoma excised three inches around it, and rather than streamline it as I’d hoped, he created two bulges above a deep dent. The scar I don’t mind. It is crimson, a dramatic sign of damage that whispers, however falsely, of bravery. But these Michelin-man bulges are truly unsightly. And suddenly the only lovely dresses are those without sleeves.

Overnight, I have become a matron, forced to choose between enjoying life and taking on the equivalent of a full-time job as architect of my appearance. I make a mental apology to my husband and choose the former. Still, a pretty dress and a smile are no longer enough; I must try harder, charm with humor and warmth and wisdom and, when that fails, grapefruit-acid candor. That’s a bright spot: Women past 40 don’t have to be nice.

Aging grants all sorts of freedoms. I know my pleasures and my limits and the rhythm at which I wish to live. I know whom and what I love. I can say no to what drains or annoys me. The world, other humans and life itself are less perplexing. My friends seem funnier, warmer. Aging gentles us, removes angst and urgency and greed, renders us less capable of hurting each other. We cherish more. I look down at my nails. Black Oreo crumbs stuck in one cuticle, an emergency measure from a vending machine so I wouldn’t get queasy observing a lab that compared deformed heart specimens. Ink stains on my fingertips, from long hours of botched calligraphy for my husband’s history exhibit. A bit of mud wedged beneath one nail, because we ran outside to save the peppers from the first frost.

I grin, remembering the mad dash and then the apron, matronly indeed, bobbling with crisp red and yellow peppers. I’d rather keep up with the world than with myself. If that means aging a little more obviously, so be it.

I say this out loud, with defiant bravado -- but my voice trembles. Aging is terrifying. It is the herald of losses -- the end of fertility, the start of invisibility, the approach of death.

Yet approaching death means nearing God.

Last week, there was an article in The New York Times about a scientist who declared death unnecessary; keeping people alive to 150 and eventually 1,000 is merely, he insisted, a matter of repairs. I crumpled the article, wondering why anyone would want to take up air and space and food for centuries when they could be with God instead.

When we are young and lovely, we need God a little less. Now, as my skin bulges and wrinkles and sags around me, I crave God more each day.

This hunger began in fear.

But if I could learn to age gracefully, I suspect it would end in wholeness.

Jeannette Cooperman is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 9, 2004

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