In Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta’s narrator is worried about her older brother. As they both sink more deeply into their “morbid middle years,” he has begun to have serious health problems. Denise scans the newspaper obituaries, and if the person is under the age of sixty, she checks for the cause of death. She keeps a list:
53, heart failure
58, complications from pneumonia
54, breast cancer
46, self-inflicted gunshot
59, pancreatic cancer
38, motorcycle accident
48, breast cancer
58, overdose (“yet to be determined,” “toxicology report,” and “bottles of various prescription medications”)
46, died in a fall
57, sudden heart attack
50, heart attack suspected
42, heart and kidney failure
45, car accident
59, complications from a brain hemorrhage
49, killed himself by hanging
59, lung cancer
40, sudden cardiac failure
50, ovarian cancer
Is it cancer or old age that is limiting my physical mobility? I can still run, although I must look like a state prisoner in ankle chains, hobbling away from the dogs. I can’t throw a forward pass more than twenty yards any longer, because I can’t drive off my back leg. I can’t get out of a car without rotating my entire torso to the left and hoisting myself as if I were climbing up the side of a ship. For an ex-athlete like me, these limitations are nearly a loss of identity. Saul Bellow says somewhere that the heart never stops yearning after pretty girls, even when a man is in his seventies. (And if anyone should know. . . .) That’s not really true for me, but playing catch with my sons or hurrying to make it across the street on yellow is an invitation to disappointment.
You’d think that being a one-book author at sixty would bother me more. After all, when the hell is my second going to be finished? Especially since cancer is not going to leave me very much longer to finish it. And then there are all those things that I will not have a chance to tell my children—about boys and girls, about first dates, about poetry and science, about college and the life of the mind, about the beauty of their mother. Maybe I should get started on writing them down.
But the surprise of turning sixty is a quiet sense of contentment, even when you are living with a terminal disease. Ambition is not diminished, but perhaps it becomes a little more realistic. Even if you intend to undertake a grand project, you know that it will be accomplished a small task at a time. If you are a writer, that means putting one sentence doggedly after another. Looking back over thirty years of a largely unsuccessful literary life, I see that’s what I have been doing all along. There is no reason to change now, even if I could.
What I am grateful for, though, is to be free of any wish for youth. At sixty, you can’t get away with pretending to be young. (Not even with four kids under the age of ten at home!) Sixty is the turning point. I don’t care what anyone says. Sixty is not the new forty. Although I may refuse to call myself a “senior,” I know that sixty is the onset of old age. Is this the promised end? Or image of that horror? It is neither. It is a chance to imagine some satisfying conclusion, and perhaps even to achieve it.