For the longest moment driving home two days ago, I was convinced that my next birthday, then just days away, would be my seventieth.
I cannot think what trick of mind swayed me to that conclusion. True, I have been looking forward to being seventy, perhaps enough mentally to add a year to my tally. I found myself ruminating that the odds of living long enough to see seventy were looking pretty darn good right then. Well, barring cancer, heart disease, a chronic lower respiratory ailment, or something even more serious.
Those three are the three leading causes of death from age sixty-five on for the next twenty years, at which point stroke outmatches respiratory infection. Prior to age sixty-four, third place goes to unintentional injury.
One may assume, then, that in a post-retirement life after age sixty-five, breathing takes on a greater urgency than not breathing. Not breathing after sixty-five becomes the greater risk than unintentional injury.
I can understand why respiration replaces unintentional injury. Having a potential for injury implies doing some actual activity in which one might be injured. But after sixty-five—we all know this—there’s nothing left to provoke further risk of injury. Newly retired sixty-five year-olds sit around the house mostly waiting for cancer or heart attack and just using air, thereby reducing the possibility of unintentional injury.
Mostly, having passed sixty-five unscathed, I was contemplating the upside of seventy. Being seventy would mean that out of every 100,000 live births seventy years previous I would have outlived 21,952 of them. Not of course that it’s a competition or anything.
For that long brief moment two days ago, I was up and ready for seventy, and why not. Try this, say it aloud: Seventy. Tell me if that word wasn’t specifically meant to slip off the tongue with the least possible effort. There’s a grace and an ease when saying that word. Seventy: magic is in there someplace, and poetry; the word has genuine zing, plus an average 14.1 actuarial years of remaining life expectancy.
I was eager for it, especially after running into a seminary classmate this last fall. I always thought he was younger than me, but, no, I discovered he wasn’t. He dropped it into conversation; he was now seventy. He sounded rueful saying it, half apologizing as if, I’m sure, he feared I might think the less of him for it.
Frankly, I think he wanted me to join his commiseration. I overlooked it and instead told him, you know, seventy always comes after sixty-nine. Yes, he conceded, that is so, a hangdog look veiling his face.
I, by contrast, actually found myself in high spirits, only two days ago as I anticipated becoming seventy, much like a nine-year-old about to reach double digits. I have never been one to close my mind at any age. I eagerly imagined all the possible vistas opening before me at age seventy. Think of it, I am going to be seventy.
Sixty-nine, though, now that’s a loser year, should you want my opinion. People talk about robust seventy-year olds, charming seventy-year olds, vigorous seventy-year olds, athletic ones, too. But do you hear that about sixty-nine year-olds, do you? No; never. Sixty-nine is a lost year.
A seventy-year-old bank robber, just thinking here out of the box, might be described in a newspaper account as rakish, certainly jaunty. The story would carry a chic headline about—according to witness descriptions—how this suave, urbane, polished trendy-style seventy-something pulled off a bank heist that, marvels a quoted police detective, might rival the abilities of a much younger thief. Where a younger man would find the heist daunting, the daring seventy-year old does it with verve and aplomb and gets clean away. That’s seventy for you.
A sixty-nine year old attempting a bank job, well, he’s just another old guy having a hard time adjusting to retirement. If sixty-nine was a glass of water, no question, it’s half empty and draining fast. So, yes, seventy, this month was going to be the inaugural day for one of the best years of my life.
And then my reverie ended. Somehow for the briefest of moments, I added a year. The prospect of becoming seventy momentarily overwhelmed my sixty-ninth year reality. Disenchantment reigned. I am at that spot in life when it may be said, sadly, “He is still agile, but slower and with less ease.”
Old age, perhaps, is the most unexpected thing that can happen to a person. One day, impulsively, it just shows up, a delicate, fragile guest, and entirely homeless with no other place to live. We must grow accustomed to one another, aging and me. Perhaps together we shall find a way to take it all not very seriously, in good humor.
Russell E. Saltzman writes from Kansas City, Missouri, and is also a contributor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @RESaltzman. His previous First Things contributions are here.