Stranger in the Mirror
At age 35, a phone call at work brought the out of the blue and gut-punching news that my 56-year-old father had suffered a stroke. I can’t recall the train ride to the hospital, but I remember the neighbor who met me at the station trying to reassure me he would be fine, “just like Ed Koch”, the former mayor of New York who had what’s called a “mini stroke” and was mostly functioning as normal. It took only one look at my father’s face, the confused, panicked, and disoriented look in his eyes and the rigid hand that couldn’t hold mine, to know that this was no Ed Koch thing. The single tear that crept down his face told me he knew it, too. After many months of rehabilitation, my father became who he was going to be. No longer able to speak or move with any ease, the garrulous, Irish storytelling, and athletic parts of him disappeared and someone unrecognizable yet familiar remained. One side of his body remained warm soft and yielding, the other like a stiff board: cold with no life.
Unhappy with some circumstances in my own, the fragility of my father’s life propelled me to change mine. I went back to school for my social work degree, got separated, moved to New York City from the suburbs, changed how I ate, gave up alcohol, started running and rollerblading. Now that I have become conversant in the dialects of age, I realize these changes at a younger age explain my good health now. It would have been even better had I had hatched them from a positive launching point rather than one driven by fear. Because of what happened to my father, as each birthday passed, an unconscious dread buzzed in my ear like an errant mosquito just waiting to bite me. Something that added to the chronic stress that I now know has not served me well. Turning 57, I felt a great sense of relief; the bothersome pest went away. Soon enough though, another annoying creature came to visit me.
Shortly after I turned 60, I pass a mirror and out of the blue and gut-punching, I’m startled by a strange woman looking back. Droopy boobs, wrinkles from past stressful times, circle her thinning lips and creep out from the corners of her eyes. Her red lipstick bleeds, while the monthly cycles when she did, too, have ceased. While still lean, her belly insists on protruding and changes the geography of what was once a flat plane. A hip replacement on her left side leaves a moon-like crater. Her hair has gone from flecked with grey to white. Who I experienced myself to be inside and who I saw when I looked in the mirror were no longer aligned. Disoriented, I realize with a shock that I too had become someone unrecognizable, yet familiar. A tear crept down my cheek. How could it be that I had never taken the time to imagine her? To know she would eventually come. Why had I not prepared for this day?
My father lived many years after his stroke, and over time, he and I adjusted. I found and spoke to those familiar and vibrant parts of him that endured while missing the parts that were lost. Despite his physical limitations, my father remained engaged. He was loving, supportive, and funny. He enjoyed his family and friends. He never complained. A snappy dresser, using his one mobile arm and hand, he continued to get dressed every day, appreciate fashionable clothes and welcomed presents of them. He wore a Brooks Brothers plaid cap. And though he was unsuccessful, he always kept trying to speak. He took on this inability as a creative challenge and using the side of his body not affected by the stroke; he found other ways to communicate; many times, hilariously funny ones. He lived for who he loved and what remained in his life rather than be defined by what he lost.
From this came a lesson that helped me see my way through this first confrontation with age: I had to find and love the familiar and vital me that lived inside, appreciate and use what I had and make my peace with those drooping and wrinkled parts I saw in the mirror that will never be the same, just as my father did. I did what I could to compensate for them and tried to not let their loss define me. I tried to be creative and find substitutes for the things I mourned that were exciting, growth-producing, and made me happy. Like taking classes in something completely different from what I studied and taught. I elevated my love of writing and clothes. During the next year of my life, thanks to my father’s powerful example, I came to accept the stranger in the mirror, and I found something new for her to do. I even gave her a name, Accidental Icon. Naively, I went on with my life as though I would be 61 forever and what I put on my body would be the ultimate answer to how to be old.
Unlike my father who wore his cap until the day he died, my mother’s descent into dementia and decline began with her refusing to wear clothes. I wonder if this relates to my own changing relationship to clothes; a disinclination right now to put anything other than flannel shirts with no bra and old jeans on my body. I suspect it’s also related to my awareness of the emptiness and subsequent burnout that came for me when I was making a living through posting photos of my body on social media. I was paid to wear clothes on that body, massage serums into that face, apply red lipstick to those lips, slip those feet into shoes and carry a bag on that arm. I spent the majority of my time and energy on my appearance, when in the past my labor was directed towards what I could do for my family and my community. During the last three years before I did stop over two years ago, I was able to save more money for retirement that I did during 45 years of practicing social work and teaching. Corporate society rewarded me way more for fashioning my body into an individual brand than for a lifetime of labor that served and elevated others. The enormity of the reward made it hard to stop. As did the times being Accidental Icon was fun and exciting. But at the end it was not the kind of reward that felt like something to be proud of.
I remember my mother refused to wear a bra when she was about the age I am now, 70. My sister and I would often argue with her to put it on when we were taking her out. She is heavily endowed. I less so. What we share in this act of not wearing a bra is that we are refusing constraint. Dictates about our bodies. We are refusing to be “influenced” out of what feels natural and right. I observe my mother’s annoyance when staff attempted to get her dressed. I feel the same now when I have to get dressed a certain way to post photos of my body on social media because I have to promote a book, or I get emails about doing sponsored posts. My body resists and gains weight to makes its point. My time on social media some days causes me to judge that body. The social media mirror invites comparison whether you are aware of it or not. It’s not easy to stop worrying about your appearance when it became the primary way you engaged with the world. After a moment when what I see in the mirror causes me me to be mean to myself, I take a breath, turn and look that woman reflected to me right in the eye. “I’m not having it”, I tell her, and here’s why. My mind is sharp. I’m healthy and still working. My hair may be white, but it frames my face and flatters my complexion. My skin glows from long hikes in nature and working in the garden. The extra pounds I’ve gained substitute for some of the collagen I’ve lost. I remember what my mother taught me in the moments of her decline and death: that the body we inhabit is finite, the life that was lived remains with those who lived it with her. She reminds me of the difference between a physical body living and dying in real life and one that lives and believes it will never get old and die on-line.
Today there is a new version of the stranger in the mirror. She is still strange to me, but now I do not deny her or hide her behind sunglasses and clothes. I am warily observing her. It is in the writing of a memoir that I got to imagine, to begin to know her. We are planning our future journey together. In hindsight, I realize now that my earlier performance as Accidental Icon as seen through images of “active aging” has not successfully intervened in changing much about the way old people are viewed because it denies and does not address our fears. To grow older successfully under its dictate and take part in the conversation of “active aging” means denying and resisting the process of aging, the social identity and privilege of the person who is aging.
I find now, again with the benefit of hindsight; while my public performance made it seem like I completely accepted my age, I was simultaneously denying it. I now see that I distanced myself from those explicitly talking about age. More and more I grew to prefer the person I was online, not my real self in the world. I styled my body with garments while actively disliking the parts of my body they concealed because in the real world, my body was getting older. In the digital one, I did not have to confront this. I denied being old or at the very least minimized the impact of it. But trying to pass in this way means erasing your authentic self and is bound to fail because the burden is on you, the individual, to meet a certain standard. It does not change the standards of youth and beauty that creates the problem to begin with.
Nonetheless, I simultaneously provided an aspirational view of older age, one where you could reinvent; a self, a career and fashion yourself a new adventure where you travel in ways you never did before, regardless of your age. I projected a boldness in entering a space reserved for the young. I just minimized the possibility that I would lose control of it, that my boldness would become arrogance or that others would start to pay more attention to what I wore than what I did as a creative person always reinventing. I did not remember that my body would continue to change even more after that first stranger appeared, regardless of the clothes I wore. I accepted but also rejected my age. In order to achieve acceptance, I had to come to terms with that rejection. If I can’t fully accept getting and being old, I can’t fully accept who I am. I can’t accept what is happening and will happen with my body. It is a profound failure of imagination leaving me unprepared for a future and the changes it will bring.
In my first confrontation with my older self, there was a moment where that stranger in the mirror, who now rudely claimed to be my present self, felt like a distinctly different person from who I experienced myself to be and for whom I had not a shred of empathy. I wanted her to go away. It took me a year to welcome her grudgingly into my life and figure out what to do with her. I never imagined her when I was 30 or even 50. The person I was at 60 could not imagine me now. The future self is someone we find it very hard to relate to or empathize with. The stranger in the mirror is too abstract to imagine much less care about.
Perhaps this is the service I provided; as Accidental Icon, I was a vivid, detailed, accessible, aspirational yet realistic future self that people could engage and interact with. Yet this Accidental Icon person was also a digital body, divorced from my real one, which caused me to have a failure of imagination about my own flesh and blood body and what may come next for it. Failures of imagination in planning for or envisioning our future older selves can have many causes. Because the sixty or seventy-year-old is often a stranger who one day far in the future may suddenly show up in our mirror, it hinders our ability to see past the present and consider future needs and wants. When I was a young girl, I daydreamed about who I would become when I grew up, what job I would perform, who I might marry. This gave me many moments of pleasure. Never did I think to imagine who I might be or aspire to when I was old or even more astounding that these imaginings could bring me pleasure.
We may not want to engage in daydreams about our future self because of all the negative stereotypes that are associated with being old, the many negative ways people think about old people. I would never have imagined in those hard years of studying, working to make a career, mothering and everything else one must do at that time of a woman’s life, that being old would ever offer so many possibilities. That it could be something I could dream about and comfort me on those days where I feared the loss of myself, who I was and wanted to be. I could soothe my longing by reminding myself to just be patient and hang on. That a time would come that I could do all those things I never had time to do when I was a younger woman or even in mid-life at 40. That I would realize deferred dreams, experiment with different identities, travel to places I never thought I would go. To be someone I always wanted to be but could never find the time and courage to make her become real.
When we live in a culture that values productivity and youth, how to be old continues to be pushed to the far reaches of our imaginations. How can we imagine new ways for our bodies to perform being old? What do we need to accept about being old in order to imagine aspirational, realistic and vivid older selves who we can care about, plan for and perhaps even eagerly expect instead of fearing and distancing ourselves from them? How do we see beyond the stranger in the mirror? The mirror that stands in our home and the one held up to us by society.