Worried About Growing Old — Since Turning 5

Oct 3, 2019

Tears flooded my pillow on the eve of my fifth birthday.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the milestone to come. First I would be five, I reasoned. Then I would be 20. And then I would be old.

I repeated the pattern when I turned 10. My mother, who was an elementary school teacher, tried in vain to convince me that 10 was one of the best ages a person could turn.

In retrospect, I realize she was right.

When I was nine years and 364 days old, however, I was convinced that the next day, I would wake up with one foot in the grave.

Eventually, I learned to handle my fear of aging — by denying that the aging was taking place.

Having noticed that numbers divisible by five seemed the most daunting, eventually, I decided never to turn one of those numbers again. I just skipped around them.

Then, I stopped changing ages altogether.

Now I just turn 39 each year.

My solutions weren’t perfect. Occasional birthdays depressed me. And I couldn’t rely on relatives and old friends not to reveal my original age.

I understand the cause of my phobia. For the first 20 years of my life, I was the youngest person in my set to learn or do just about anything.

I defined myself by my precociousness. Any threat to that status — and the calendar was the ultimate threat — endangered my essence. As an identity, youth was doomed in the long run.

Recently, I've found a new way to define myself. 

I do a lot of public speaking about caring for my mother — the very same mother who counseled me about the virtues of being 10. Late in life, she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. At the end of these talks, people often thank me. I help them apply common sense and humor to an experience that can feel overwhelming.

At some point, I came to a realization. I would no longer be the youngest person around, alas.

But I could be one of the wisest.

Unlike youth, wisdom doesn’t come automatically. But it will never go away.

Of course, I’m still officially 39. And I’m not allowing my hair to go gray. One has one’s standards.

Tinky Weisblat is a singer and writer who lives in Hawley, Massachusetts.