Marilyn Heins

Portrait of Marilyn Heins

Tammie Graves / Arizona Daily Star

A birthday approaches, my eighty-seventh. A wonderful milestone but a startling number. Just for fun I counted slowly from 1 to 87. It takes a while!

Every now and then I look back at each consecutive year starting with my first memory. This takes longer and is more fun! Even bad or sad memories are useful. Every failure and painful loss ends up on the plus side of my life ledger because I survived it. Odd how reflection on time lived is somehow soothing even if, or perhaps because, it brings tears.

Do I have any new life lessons to share with my readers? As I have said before, longevity brings us both blessings and burdens. In adolescence bodily changes lead to adulthood and teens know grownups rule the roost and have more fun, while in my age group changes almost always mean losses.

I observe my own aging as objectively as one can and I talk to friends in my decade and beyond. I have come to believe that we all experience struggles with the seesaw of aging. We are high in the air to be faring as well as we do, but we drop way down when we realize new losses have arrived or are nigh.

I lack the wisdom to tell others or myself how to deal with this emotional seesaw. But I will share what I try to do.

Balance is important but achieving it can be difficult. One advanced nonagenarian I knew told me she had renewed her Tucson Symphony Orchestra season tickets adding, “I might as well be an optimist, pessimism sucks!” I too renewed my season tickets for all the classical music in Tucson. Live music is always the highlight of my day. But I know it’s OK to give the tickets away if I am too tired to attend a concert. And I vow to obey my “Only one thing a day” rule. No more dinners with friends before a concert, that’s for people newly on Medicare.

Letting it go is what I call the Scarlett O’Hara approach to mental health, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” This strategy is especially useful to us oldies. By tomorrow we may have forgotten all about it!

Keeping busy works for me provided I stop before exhaustion sets in. When I was writing my first book I set an alarm clock for an hour. The alarm reminded me to get up and run around the house a few times to rev up the circulation to my brain and other sit-weary body parts. Can I still run? No way! Just the other day Tucson’s sky was filled with glorious clouds making it a perfect day to run for joy. I thought, “Oh, yes, I remember running, it used to be great fun!”

This morning while writing this, I asked my cellphone to alert me in an hour. When the alarm went off I saved my unfinished doc, poured myself a cup of coffee, and (gasp!) finished a novel I was reading. The sky did not fall! I must remember to do this more often! Write it down quick, Marilyn!

I still wrestle with questions like, What is possible and practical for me now? I can’t do it all any more, and actually can’t do even a portion of what I once did. And the number of such “impossibles” will increase.

This leads to another question, What is really important to me now? For me, and I suspect for most of us, family and friends top the list. I remind myself to focus on what gives me the most pleasure or satisfaction. What I enjoy most is reading and writing (‘rithmetic not so much) which fits with what is still possible.

Earlier in life we were so busy doing what we had to do at work and home we did not have time to reflect on life. In our later years we have such “reflective” time. I can be more mindful now than when I had two small children and a busy job.

Reflection leads me to the existential questions, How can I accept with grace the reality of my life now? What’s next? How do I find equanimity?

For me the answers lie somewhere between realistic acceptance and an optimistic outlook. I have always tried, and still do try, to look for the sunny flip side when the other side is gloomy. What will happen if I can’t drive any more? I will Uber (used it recently when traveling…easy to do and works great!). When traveling becomes too much I will reflect on past travels dusting off the many travel journals I have kept.

I will continue to appreciate nature though I no longer hike. I feel grateful to be alive on this beautiful planet and will do everything I can to preserve and protect our earth. I can still type my protests even if I no longer march on behalf of the environment.

I will continue to relish one part of me that is still intact: my curiosity. We are lucky to be alive at a time when it has never been easier to satisfy our curiosity on any subject. Thanks to Google it only takes a few clicks instead of a trip to the library.

I keep myself informed, reading two newspapers every day, a bunch of periodicals, and as many books as possible. Taking courses for the fun of learning something new is still a treat.

As we advance in age, we face an uncertain path to an inescapable future. The future has always been uncertain but in youth one rarely thinks about it. Now each of us in our own way must amble along searching like Diogenes to find our own honest truth about the meaning of life.

Facing the truth of our present and past years can lead us to gratitude for what we had, appreciation of what we still have, and strength to face our future. It can renew feelings of optimism as well as symphony tickets. Pessimism sucks!

Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent, great-step grandparent, and the founder and CEO of ParentKidsRight.com. She welcomes your individual parenting questions. Email info@ParentKidsRight.com for a professional, personal, private, and free answer to your questions.