It’s surreal to see a certain big birthday on my horizon

It’s surreal to see a certain big birthday on my horizon

I’m approaching a big birthday that will make it impossible for me to think of myself as not-yet-old.

Which big birthday? I’d rather not say since, to be honest, some people I know may think I am younger than I am. I don’t want those people to change their view of me. I fear they will think I can’t be as sharp as before. Or maybe they will assume my memory can no longer be trusted.

My primary care doctor keeps telling me that I am not elderly, that I don’t fit the clinical picture because I am healthy. When I look in the mirror, though, I see the wrinkles that frame my mouth. And I frown at the lines on my neck that stare back at me when I don’t cover them up with a necklace of just the right length.

I’m a yogi. As a cousin of mine likes to say, “Yoga and you are a match made in heaven.” So I know that living in the present moment, rather than wallowing in trepidation about the future, is key to a quality life. Usually, I begin my morning with one of the meditations on my Ten Percent Happier app. I love the explanation of everyday anxiety given by one of the teachers: overestimating the risk of something going wrong and underestimating our ability to cope with the aftermath.

That wisdom rings so true to me, yet I still struggle with the fear that I will not be able to handle what life tosses my way. As my wise aunt used to say, “Old age is not for sissies.”

There is so much illness among my peers at this stage of life. And there is the loss of a spouse. And the fear of losing a spouse. How do you survive the loss of a long-term soulmate? I joke with my husband, as I’ve done for years, that he must promise to let me die first. But I know it is just silly banter, a scenario out of our control.

My husband likes to tell the story of the elderly man who headed for our apartment building’s elevator smoking a cigar. When a member of the apartment staff told him that he was not allowed to smoke in the elevator, he responded: “I’m 80 years old. What are they goin’ to do to me?”

Giving yourself a license to be inconsiderate in old age? That’s not for me. Why ruin the legacy I will be leaving?

I can’t think about my legacy without remembering how much I’ve been able to give voice to my values as an American Jewish woman and Zionist through Hadassah. Through the years, I have met so many older women whose love for Israel keeps a sparkle in their eyes and an enthusiasm for life in their demeanor. They radiate a captivating youthful energy and impressive devotion.

Two memories of past Hadassah national presidents come to mind. One day I was sitting next to Bernice Tannenbaum during a Hadassah convention. In her late 80s by then, she was listening intently to the presentation, clearly filled with admiration for what we were accomplishing. I remember turning to her and asking, “Bernice, don’t you ever burn out?” And she replied: “Every day, Lonye. Every day.”

She brought home to me that volunteering, like life itself, is a rollercoaster. The trick, I think, is to keep riding, despite the downsides, the frustrations and disappointments — to renew, over and over, the pride in our mission.

And then there is my memory of Judith Epstein. I didn’t meet her until she was in her late 80s. She had been a keynote speaker at a Hadassah Young Leaders Institute in New York City, and I was walking her out to get a cab. It was late in the evening, and I automatically stepped forward to hail her one. Judith, who was a rather small woman, said, kindly but forcefully, “I can get my own cab!” — which, heading to the curb with an outstretched arm, she proceeded to do quite quickly. She wasn’t going to let her age stop her from doing what she still could do herself.

I have never met New Jersey Jewish News / Times of Israel blogs columnist and great-grandmother of six Rosanne Skopp, but I’ve gotten to know a good deal about her through reading her always captivating weekly opinion pieces. Her sharp, articulate analysis of our world, and her ability to convey so eloquently her passion for Israel and justice, are an inspiration. I can’t imagine anyone denigrating her brain power!

Yet there is a universality about the fear of aging that traverses the centuries. To quote the powerful verse 9 from Psalm 71, which we recite during the High Holy Days: “Do not cast me off in old age; do not abandon me as my strength fails.” Even when I was young, I found it to be a poignant sentiment — troubling in its truth about the inevitability of losing our strength and the uncertainty that help will be there to sustain us when we do.

My grandmother used to cry as she recited that verse in the Brooklyn synagogue we attended together during the holidays. She had breast cancer at the time.

I know I can’t escape the fact that advancing age brings added vulnerability and that it requires acceptance of loss — whether of people we love or abilities we cherish. But maybe continuing to participate passionately in life with a dose of humility will ensure that the joys still to come remain vivid on the horizon.

Lonye Debra Rasch of Short Hills is a past president of the Northern New Jersey fegion of Hadassah and a member of Hadassah’s national assembly and the Hadassah Writers Circle. Married to an international attorney and the mother of two daughters and grandmother of three small children, she is a big advocate of yoga, book clubs, and time with family and friends.

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