On Growing Old: A Homily

Author Primo Levi, an Italian Jew, survived a concentration camp, but forty years later, he flung himself from the third floor of his apartment building down to the ground floor. All along he had been suffering from terrible depression. The world had done him wrong and tried to kill him, but in the end, he killed himself. The Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later."

Growing older? The world will work hard to kill you. Jobs are harder to come by, your opinions will no longer be sought after the way they once were, and worst of all, if you walk into a room among people with whom you have never met before, they might not see you, or greet you, or want to talk to you, and write you off as sadly unknowable, decaying, irrelevant, mostly invisible—old. I’ve been in that room, I know. The people in that room want me to look young forever, the same way some obituaries show a photograph of the old when they were young.

I’m still learning about this thing called courage. Maybe growing old requires a certain kind of courage, a valor that can’t be packaged in an ad campaign or captured in a photo shoot. Maybe growing old will be the hardest thing you or I will ever do.

As you grow old, and lucky for you, you are able to hold onto your mind, the place where you feel age more than in any other place is not in your soul, but in your body. The body hurts. Stiff, sore, and hot like an out-of-control fire, injured hands, knees, hips backs, everything. You and I, all of us, the body hurts. There is no other way to feel my age more surely than to dance. Yet being able to dance is what makes me younger than I really am. My dancer has the strength and guile to leap over hurdles and to use her legs to kick the world that wants to kill her. She is not going to die that easily. Not yet.

I take all of this to the dance floor. I want to soar much higher in the air than I can go. I want my turns to whir, a rotary blade, a spinning top and a fan that cannot go slow or even stop.  The tips of my toes touch the ground with the precision of a dart. My dancer has knees that work as supple as rubber bands and pound for pound her strength is as fierce as that of any young man. She can fly, she can leap and she can soar to the four corners of the earth. The dancer in my head is excellent. How I love her! I love her.

I do not think unkindly of age so much anymore. I am relieved that I have lived this long when so many others have perished due to disease, physical and organic, and then there are the diseases of the mind, heart and soul. Some have taken their own lives. Why kill yourself? Why kill yourself when the world has been doing you harm all along, doing you wrong, trying to kill you, the same way the world tries to kill all of us. Some do not have to summon the requisite courage that is needed to grow old. The world did not have to kill them, and instead, they killed themselves. Tell me why. I want to understand.

I cannot steal my life from myself.  The dancer will not let me rob myself of my own old woman. My dancer wants to me get old, and older still, but bolder too. She wants me to grow old like the Madwoman of Chaillot, who doesn’t feel so good when she first gets up in the morning, but she splashes cold water on her face, puts her teeth in, and goes about the day. Until my dying breath, I will go about my days. And on that last day, I want to feel a slight breeze soar against my cheek, so I will know in that final moment, I am still alive.








Patricia Vaccarino

Patricia Vaccarino is an accomplished writer who has written award-winning film scripts, press materials, articles, essays, speeches, web content, marketing collateral, and eight books.

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