Many years ago, I spent a summer in New York City, along with my sheltie, Sophie. We spent countless hours in a Greenwich Village dog park, where I noticed a curious pattern. The regulars who came to the park — the tall TV executive with his bulldog, the retired librarian with her terrier — seemed to transform as they left. As they walked out of the park, each person turned into a brusque, harried New Yorker. But inside the park each showed a softness, a vulnerability, and our conversations were surprisingly deep. This softness was, I believe, linked to our extravagant love for our animals, as if, along with our pets, our beating hearts were out on display, there for each other to see.
I think about the dog park sometimes when I reflect on getting older. I’m 71 now, and what surprises me about aging is that there’s so much emotion, such a richness of feelings. Of course there is loss, lots of it, and many of our losses are obvious. We may walk funny due to hip pain, or we lean forward to hear better. Some of us are bald due to chemo, or hair loss related to aging; others wear bandages from a fall or biopsy. Our faces have wrinkles, our hair no longer has color. When you’re getting old, there’s no hiding it. So, like those in the dog park, we’re wearing our hearts on our sleeves; we’re softer than when we were young. Now, though, that softness concerns our own bodies, our fears about how they’re diminishing.
Our vulnerabilities are visible. When we see each other, we see those losses, that vulnerability, and we’re like refugees from the same country, speaking a secret language. In that language our conversations, even when casual, are surprisingly meaningful. I believe when we ask, “How are you?” we’re really asking, “Are you all right? Can I help?”
This softness, this vulnerability, is what I love most about aging. I don’t love that others are going through hard times; of course not. But I do appreciate that, compared to when we were young, we seem to connect with each other more deeply.
The most frequent question I get regarding my novel, “One More Day,” is, why write about this? That is, why write about getting old? Why set a novel in an assisted living facility? Isn’t that just depressing? Isn’t it sad?
Yes, I respond, some parts are sad. But there’s so much more. And the spark for writing this novel was my wanting to show some of the “more,” to explore this richness of feeling. I believe the vulnerability of aging leads to new intimacy, even with strangers. I love this intimacy, this sharing of our beating hearts, just like those long ago days in the dog park.