When I met Maria and fell in love with her a decade ago,I was worried about the difference in our age. I am 17 years older than she is, and I like to joke that I have a lifetime of wisdom and experience over her, and she always get annoyed or laugh at me when I tell her this.
She is not only young in age but in spirit, she has the joyful sense of discovery that is usually the hallmark of the very young, and I wondered how she would feel about me when I got older…like, well now. She wrote a beautiful message about my birthday on her blog today and in the piece she said she loved me for who I was at 70, and the curious thing is that I believe it.
I hardly ever believe it when somebody tells me that they love me.
I deal with the elderly all the time, and I do not ever want to be a heavy burden on her, or dampen her great enthusiasm for life in any way. I have been thinking about how to deal with this, and as I have come to know Maria and love her even more deeply, I realize one of the great gifts I can give her is to respect her strength and many gifts.
She can and will take care of herself, she can and does make very good decisions about herself, she grows stronger and wiser by the day, and her art has deepened and grown, as have her friendships and connections to the world. It is not loving to worry about somebody in that way, acceptance is the true gift of love, I think.
She really does love me at 70, and I love her back, and in this exchange of feeling I have also come to reassess my own life and come to like, if not love, myself. When you reach a relatively advanced age and look back over a lifetime, it can seem to have had a consistent order and plan, a rational narrative that runs through, as though composed by a novelist or playwright. Things that seemed random or accidental, writes the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, turn out to have been indispensable factors and decisions in the creation of a consistent plot.
But who composed the plot?
At 70, I feel stronger and healthier than I have in many years, I have nothing to prove to the world and no great future to worry about. I can finally just be me, and I am liking me, I am learning and changing all the time, and may one day become the human being I wish to be. The best gifts in life are free.
This year, struggling to stay grounded and positive in a world that sometimes seems to have gone mad, I had a great epiphany. Doing things I believe to be good is good for me, and grounding. I seek out the vulnerable among us, and ask them the same question: "What do you need?"
And if I can, and with help, I try to give them what they need. And if I can't, I say so and move on. I am well aware at this point in life what I can do and what I can't do, and I have grown strong enough to say so if I can't do something. These small acts of kindness keep me focused on what is important to me: empathy, honor and humanity. My life is not an argument, my values are not a survey to be decided by others.
A few weeks ago, I was shocked to receive one of those jarringly hateful messages from someone writing online, only this person was once a friend. We had an argument, i can't say I recall it, and our friendship turned into something angry and awful.
If you are a public person, I'm sorry to say this happens from time to time. I'm not sure why. I have always made some people uncomfortable, even angry, I suppose it is my nature.
Still, I was shocked by the message, it really was not an important argument, at least to me, and I answered, simply to say I was sorry she felt that way. And I let go of it, I could feel it leaving me like a cloud blown away by the wind.
I am no longer able to respond in kind to hate or anger, or to stew or pout. It is simply beyond me now, for better or worse, no longer a part of the plot that has shaped and defined my life. It is not that I am saintly or pure, but age is a filter, when you have so much time behind you and so little ahead of you, your subconscious begins to act like a filter, screening out what just does not matter any more. That has left me free to focus my life on what does matter, and that is a breakthrough.
I am growing into myself, and it took me long enough. For the first time in my life, I like the face I see in the mirror. He is getting older, for sure, but there is humor and some truth in those eyes.
I have worked at shedding anger and resentment, for sure, but that is also the gift of getting older, what is important becomes clearer, what is not important recedes. How glad I am, that I am not capable of writing a message like that to anyone, if I ever was.
The greatest gift of my lifetime has been Maria, without a doubt. We simply belonged together and have profoundly affected one another. I felt this so strongly on my birthday, which she went to great pains to celebrate, taking me to the racetrack, which I love, and a play we both loved.
We had the most precious day laughing, holding hands, observing, talking, remembering, just being grateful for one another. The 17 years is really not important, certainly not to her, and not even, any longer, to me.
Maria is the greatest birthday gift I have ever received, and it seems the greatest gifts in life are free.