Everyone knows that getting old sucks. At least that’s what you think when you’re young. However, when you get to middle-age - when the “c-word” changes from the word that rhymes with hunt to the word that rhymes with answer - you realise that you want to become that cheerful frail old lady that you see walking very slowly down the road pulling her shopping trolley or the old man with the flat cap sitting at the bus stop. The alternative is just not that appealing. The “I hope I die before I get old” attitude is a young person’s lie. And while it is tolerated with a knowing smile by us old(er) people, the holding of such a belief is a sure sign of a not-fully-formed mind.
And getting old isn't all bad. Ok, you might forget what things are called, what you were saying mid-sentence or that the phone that you've been looking for the last five minutes is actually in your hand, but if you’re lucky you might finally be making a decent wage, have started to take yourself less seriously and have acquired a modicum of wisdom.
When I turned 36, my husband forgot my birthday.* I’m not going to lie – it felt like the end of the world and our marriage. His subsequent attempts to buy me presents (camping gear – hah!) and a lemon tree (which I purposely neglected for several years before it finally gave up the ghost) only made matters worse. Looking back on it now I realise that I was the perpetrator of my own misery that day, which my mother went to great pains to explain to me at the time. Did I listen? I never did before and I wasn't going to start then. Well, eventually I did figure it out, but I would have been a lot happier if I’d been quicker on the uptake.
A marital milestone occurred when we went our first family holiday with only one nearly grown-up child. Camping in Cornwall for ten days sounded like a perfect way to test the impending dynamics of our shrinking family unit while Alex was in California with cousins. Realising the long-term impact of the following days, John and I made a pact not to bicker - for the entire trip. Now, those of you that have ever camped know that setting up a tent is pretty much the only time that you are 100% guaranteed to fall out with someone. (For a hilarious book about family camping, read The Tent, the Bucket and Me). Well, John and I set up our enormous over-sized tent on a blustery, damp day on the The Lizard with nary a cross word. I’m not saying that a miracle happened on that trip, but it was pretty close.
Anna and John on the South West Coast Path in 2010.
Fast forward a couple of years and I can say with complete certainty, that if we hadn't progressed past the Bickerson stage, we’d never been able to pull off our move to Fiji. First, there’s no way Anna would have come. Second, third and fourth, there were about a thousand times during the process of the move and settling in period that either of us could have said “sod this for a game of soldiers” or worse. And finally, if we’d expended precious energy on brooding, reviling and recriminating, we would have been very lonely indeed.
A wonderful Cornish holiday...
I’m not saying that we always get along. When we arrived in Melbourne recently for John’s gallbladder operation, we’d been travelling for about ten hours. Opening the hotel room door, we agreed that we’d arrived just in the nick of time because we’d begun to grate on each other’s nerves. The difference is that I didn’t demand to know why I was irritating him and vice versa. That’s because we’re finally old enough to know better.
On the day of John’s surgery, I turned 49. I recognised the birthday card he pulled out of the nightstand - he’d obviously purchased in the Ian Potter Gallery gift shop when I went to the toilet the day before. (As a good friend pointed out, it’s better than getting a card from the toilet while I was in the gift shop.) Inside he’d written “Happy Birthday, Beautiful Wife”. Honestly, could there be a better gift than that?
John’s hospital roommate was a talkative elderly gentleman called Derrick. Derrick was in Exeter during WWII. He briefly recounted the bombing raids by the Germans, saying finally, “And in the mornings we woke up and said ‘good morning’ and we meant it”.
Eventually the “c-word” will start to mean care home and an adventure will be travelling down to the bottom of the garden and back. Until then and beyond, I plan to greet each morning with a grateful hello and I’m going to mean it too.
*In fairness, John has asked me to state that once when he presented me with a gift of beautiful earrings on our anniversary, I argued the toss with him that he’d got the dates wrong. He hadn't.