As part of our ongoing celebration of the magazine’s fiftieth year in print, this month’s Dog-Eared Page features an essay previously published in The Sun.
Years before I met Genie Zeiger through my job as The Sun’s manuscript editor, I was an admirer of her writing. In her 1998 Sun essay “Secrets,” she wrote with tenderness and frustration about a larger-than-life friend, someone so seemingly open she once danced naked in front of an audience, but someone who could not make room for problems that were not hers. I loved Genie’s voice on the page: candid, funny, moving, and generous. She plumbed the emotional lines without hyperbole or tricks.
Genie came of age in the 1950s and early ’60s, when women were considered successful if they married well. From one essay of hers I learned that her fiancé’s mother (she was engaged at the age of seventeen, God help her) thought she had a disastrous nose, so she got a nose job. Later, in the tumultuous sixties and seventies, she found a good therapist, moved to the Berkshires, and got a divorce.
The simplicity of Genie’s writing is deceptive. Take “20, 40, 60, 80”: How easily she sets us up. How comfortable she makes us feel. We naturally agree when she writes that she’ll probably die at the age of eighty, because that’s when her parents died. Solved. In reality Genie would die of cancer in 2009, at the age of sixty-six. But when she wrote this essay, she was still very much in the middle of life, not dying. She writes — profoundly, I think — about how hard it is to feel your age when you’re simultaneously vital to your adult children, young and sexy to an octogenarian, and still aware of your parents cheering and judging you.
At the center of the essay is Genie’s friend Robyn, who is dying of cancer. While they’re running errands on one of their last times together, Robyn says, “Oh, my God, Genie, you can just get up and go and do all that. It’s amazing. Do you have any idea?” In the dailiness of our lives, grief hits the hardest. After Robyn dies, her absence feels most unfair at the gym, where she and Genie swam three times a week for twelve winters — as if a tightly held schedule should thwart death.
It was Genie who suggested The Sun host writing retreats in the early 2000s. Those who attended might remember her as a slight woman with an enormous presence; a serious person with a tomboy grin that tickled me. She taught workshops for us in the Berkshires; Big Sur, California; Rhinebeck, New York; and New York City. In a room full of introverted writers, she was usually the first to speak. It was Genie who gave us the writing prompt “What happened was . . . ,” which we used for a decade to end each weekend: One by one, tired but exhilarated writers stood up and read on-the-spot observations about the retreat. They disclosed what went right or wrong, what was hilarious or powerful. It helped end the gathering on a high note, and Genie loved it all.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time.
— William Shakespeare
— for Robyn Oughton, 1949–2003
I readily confess: I do not relish aging. As I close in on the age of sixty, I can’t understand how life’s waters, pure and rushing, have so mysteriously carried me here; how the moon keeps on with its rhythms and the sun rises and falls and the days pass faster and faster as I use up my allotment of breaths and move toward death. I think: Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty. Both my parents died when they were eighty; 75 percent of my life is probably gone. Where did it go?
I remember once walking with my son along Boston Harbor near a famous fish restaurant, but I can’t remember the name of the place. (Another aspect of aging.) I was about thirty-five at the time, and my son was ten, and as a huge truck passed us, the driver stuck his head out the window and whistled enthusiastically at me. What was I wearing? Probably a miniskirt. What was my hair like? Probably long and dark and parted down the middle. As the truck’s exhaust briefly swirled around us, Josh muttered, “I can’t believe that jerk. I wish I could slam him one.”
I was touched and amused by my son’s chivalrous impulse, whereas the whistle left me feeling simultaneously flattered and annoyed. Who’d hoot at a woman when she clearly had her son in tow? Was Josh upset by his mother’s sexuality? Was it an Oedipal scene? I have no idea, but I remember the incident well.
Now I’m mostly invisible to men, unless they’re seventy or older. “I don’t feel invisible at all,” one woman my age replied when I mentioned this. “I was never noticed before,” she said. “It’s you pretty ones who get to suffer this time.”
Recently I went to a bar with my husband and a friend to listen to jazz. The place was smoky and jam-packed, our drinks long in coming. Our friend whispered loudly, “There’s so-and-so!” — only he said the name of a famous writer — and nodded toward a schlumpy-looking man in a trench coat, moving slowly toward the bar. The writer took off his coat, laid it over a stool, and sat down on it. He was quickly handed a beer by a plump young bartender. Then the writer lit a cigarette and began to stare at me as I scrunched defensively next to my husband. I was, I confess, vaguely flattered even to be noticed by such a famous writer, and his rheumy eyes made me see myself in a more literary fashion. But, God, he was old!
How can one accept — let alone enjoy — aging in a culture where God is twenty-five; where advertisements are filled with twenty-somethings in halter tops and tight T-shirts, unless the ad is for a drug to treat incontinence, high blood pressure, or elevated cholesterol? What about the wisdom of age? What about endurance? What about the beauty of a face etched by years that were not always easy? Show me anyone over fifty who has not known tragedy, and I’ll show you Icarus about to lose his wings and plunge into the sea. Maybe angels will arrive, maybe a medevac, maybe death.
So here I am walking down the only real long corridor there is, sometimes wanting to sing and dance, but often whining as I’m pushed in opposite directions: from behind by two dead parents, encouraging, “It’s fine, it’s fine”; from ahead by a thirty-five-year-old daughter, saying, “You’re young. You can’t die, Mom. You’re my hero, and if you die, I’ll never get over it.” But it’s not death that’s the devil; it’s the decaying body, the kind of deterioration my own mother faced in her long years of Parkinson’s and dementia.
Recently my husband and I bought long-term-care insurance, to stave off nursing-home hell. And, at last, we’ve written our wills. My husband, thirteen years younger than I, acts as if he is going along for the ride. “Why don’t you catch up?” I sometimes yell at him. He smiles and is silent; what can he say? And so I hold my husband, and he holds me, and I hold what life I have left in my arms like a child, trying to comfort it, make it laugh. But sometimes it feels like a real job.
“Oh, you’re young,” Gordon, the eighty-year-old man I like to sit next to in synagogue, says to me. I have no idea how to respond to this. Should I sing hallelujah? Thank God for the good life I’ve had? Gordon is a beautiful old soul with the face of a kindly god. Sometimes I feel an impulse to sidle up to him, thigh to thigh, turn that face to mine, and kiss him hard on the lips, but I’m afraid I’d give him a heart attack.
I had no fear whatsoever of kissing my friend Robyn, who, at fifty-four, was stricken with cancer. It started in her lungs and then spread just about everywhere else within two years, despite chemotherapy (the details of which I heard almost daily). During her illness, I laughed and wept with her, and did as many things for her as she would allow. We often held hands and talked above the racket of her three parakeets.
The last time I took Robyn to do errands — the drugstore, the pet store, the market — she marveled, “Oh, my God, Genie, you can just get up and go and do all that. It’s amazing. Do you have any idea?” I paused for a moment and considered. Then I brought Robyn home, helped her switch over from a portable oxygen tank to the larger tank in her living room, kissed her once on each cheek, got back into the car, and drove past the familiar landscape that I could barely imagine existing without her in it.
Now that she’s dead, I keep wondering where she is, although I’ve visited her grave twice. I could swear she was in the barred owl that flew over my head in the woods a month after her death and then sat in a tree about twenty feet from me and stared. I hadn’t seen a barred owl since the winter before my mother’s death, seven years earlier, when one had perched outside our kitchen window week after week. Now there was this bird, and there I was, my heart fractured by Robyn’s departure. The owl watched me steadily, taking my grief into its black eyes. Then off it flew, and I walked back home.
I’m lucky to have come this far in life before losing a good friend. “What does it feel like?” someone in her forties asked me. “It feels hard and empty,” I told her. What I didn’t say is that sometimes, beneath this hard emptiness, there is a sense of flight, of wings spread, of chest and heart holding more love than before. There is the knowledge that my heart won’t ever seal up as tight again, and the real, earned understanding that we all are dying. I’ve already been blessed with six more years than Robyn had.
When Robyn and I walked down the street together talking, I never noticed whether men looked at us. I didn’t care, and Robyn helped me not to care, with her bulky winter hats and the little red cap she wore to cover her baldness.
Middle-aged people shrink, crease, fade, and, if they’re lucky, slowly lose the desire to be noticed, the way we once lost our childhood taste for Necco Wafers or Pez. My desire to be seen is gradually being replaced by the desire to see: the faces of those I love, the cardinal in the bush, the socks of the woman with multiple sclerosis who swims at the Y.
“Great socks,” I tell her as I change for my workout.
“Thanks,” she says. “Now that I’m older, I’m going for wilder, especially in the sock department.”
I think of Robyn’s strange hats.
As we continue talking, this woman says she’s fifty-eight and can’t wait to turn sixty. I can’t believe she’s younger than I am, I think as I go off to blow-dry my hair so it won’t fall flat.
When I return, no one else is in the locker room. Robyn and I met here three times a week, every winter, for twelve years. Grief suddenly hits again. Packing up my things, I begin to cry. I walk out past a few people, averting my wet eyes. Outside, the late-afternoon sky glows pink over the red-and-white Toyota sign and the bare November trees. Beauty and pain are sisters, I think. Aging and death are sisters. Robyn and I are sisters. I can’t see Robyn as she was, but I see something akin to her in this sky. Part of me, I believe, will never die. But I wonder if I will always miss, just a little, being the young woman who drew stares from strangers walking down the street.
A few weeks before Robyn’s death, my husband and I went to see Wynton Marsalis perform at a small club. Bill and I sat about four feet from the stage, and Bill, who loves music more than he loves me (although he might deny this), was entranced, transported, gone from his body and taken up into pure sound the way prophets and poets claim we ecstatically dissolve into light at the end.
I kept looking at my husband. Bill’s a serious guy, not quick with words, which he respects too much to misuse, aware as he is of their often-paltry ability to hold truth — unlike the long note from Marsalis’s trumpet, that sound emitted from a gleaming piece of metal, its mouthpiece surrounded by those wide lips and miraculous, triple-jointed cheeks. I felt Bill’s spirit undulating above his strong, erect body, utterly lost to flesh. Then the blue of his eyes caught the brown of mine for a second, and he leaned toward me and whispered, “I could die now.” My eyes moistened, and I wanted so badly to believe that this joy was what had come for Robyn; that it’s what will come for us all in the end.
“20, 40, 60, 80,” by Genie Zeiger, first appeared in the July 2005 issue of The Sun. Copyright © 2005 by Genie Zeiger. Reprinted by permission of her estate.