The day I woke up

wake up.jpgMy mother said that seventy years
is plenty of years and after that
you’re a nuisance a mistake
you’re a burden to the state.
So when I hit seventy I noticed the date
but mothers are allowed to be wrong about stuff
some of the time, that’s fair enough
and the seventies turned out to be
a sweet spot, at least so far, at least for me
until I looked around and all I could see
was other old people trotting along like me
and I thought Uh oh, you mean there’s more?
But how much more? To be precise
how many years am I meant to live?
Statistics say
the average woman of my age
will live to 84 but hey
I’m not average (nobody is)
so give me a number, do me the math.

So Google found me a questionnaire
that I trusted to offer a pretty good guess
and I answered 40 questions
and I waited for the verdict
with existential angst and strangled breath.

“Based on your answers you are likely to die
at the ripe old age of 99.”
And I said No, that isn’t me
I could almost imagine being 83
but 99 I’ll never be.
Let’s try another questionnaire
a better one a proper one
let’s do the Mayo Clinic one
I’ll fudge the truth and get the truth
and surely I’ll die in the flush of youth.

Now what does the Mayo Clinic say?
Oh shit I’m heading for 98?
I stormed away from my stand-up desk
and flung myself with all my soul
into the sulk of the century
the ultimate apoplectic huff
short of actual apoplexy
for which you need a dodgy heart
and while I raged, my heart chuffed on and on
like a good old puffer train.

Two days later I settled down and I said to myself,
Well bugger that, it’s just a guess
and I might die the week after next
but it does make a certain sort of sense—
life expectancy on the rise
me with my excellent Girl-Guide habits
my good nutrition and education
me with a home and superannuation
me with phenomenal life-long luck
of lucky time and place and genes
it’s not so freaky to believe
I could survive to 99
whether I like it or not.
If so… if so…
I’ve still got a quarter of my life to go
so I’d better get my ducks in a row.
I thought I’d die in a rocking chair
everything normal for a few more years
then a sudden sit down and a quick let down
and that’d be dying done and dusted.
But now I have to brace myself, face the facts
face my fears and the bonus years
the years and years I never chose
and make them as good as I can.
I knew all about old people
you see them everywhere
but in a million years I never dreamt
one day they would be me.

MP3 recording of this poem

Poem and recording CC BY 2.0 Rachel McAlpine

38 thoughts on “The day I woke up

      1. It was tough. We’ve got a 8 week old baby and a three year old, and just going through every death or other gruesome scenario was draining. I hugged the toddler until he struggled out of my grip and blew a raspberry at me. He knows daddy gets intense sometimes!

  1. When my mother turned 70 I asked her how that felt; it sounded old to me, and someone had told me anything after 70 is a gift. She said she felt the same as at 69, but she died at 72. I was still running 10K races at 78, so you can’t tell. If 99 comes up, why not opt for 100? I like round numbers.

    1. I’m gobsmacked by what you were doing at my age, 78. How glorious. At the moment 98 is all I can conceptualize. As you see, even that took a bit of doing. But you, on the other hand…

  2. This made me reflect on the way perception of age seems to factor in to how we respond. When I was younger 70 was seen as really old, friends grandparents would be in their 70’s and look like they were ready for the grave. No doubt that generation was in part missing out on the advances that we have now, medicines, better understanding about health and nutrition. But also they were made to believe that 70 was old age – a self fulfilling prophecy.

    Both my own grandmothers lived into their 90’s, despite living in extreme poverty for most of their lives.. My Oma still walked every day at 95, and enjoyed rambling all day in the mountains and hills, only stopping when her eyesight made it too dangerous.

    Rachel, I think that old people do exist, but somehow, like the amazing women in my own family, you are not one of them!

    1. You’re so right about the power of our perception of “old”: science tells us now that it is closely related to the length of time we actually live. Whether that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy or realism, who knows? But I am grateful for the stories of your grandmothers living into their nineties despite extreme poverty. They broke the mould.

      1. I spend as much time as I can with my Aunt who is in her late 70’s, from Austria as well. And her schedule makes her hard to see, because she is always busy. And the amazing thing is how vital she is, and I think her refusal to let herself be ‘old’ is a big part of that.

  3. I’m enjoying – and relating to – your recent posts on old age. Personally relevant to me in the latter part of my 7th decade. Your post on Templates really made me think about my female role models and other factors in my personal history. Keep on writing – you’re providing a public service!

    1. What a gorgeous thing to say, Alison! I have a hunch that my galloping poems on this topic are a bit unusual and I do intend to continue. But when I go to Korea, I’m expecting my writing to speed up and my publishing to slow down.

      1. Korea – to be expecfed; after all, it’s going to be all about the writing. A wonderful opportunity. Can’t wait to read the account of your visit/travels.

  4. My grandmother who lived until 88 once told me that life was downhill after 40! I ignored her words and watched her life. She thrived and moved into Chicago from the suburbs so she could more easily get to the symphony. She read the paper every morning before going down to breakfast in her retirement home “because you have to keep up!”

  5. Like your poem. Recall when my grandmother was in seventies and I thought that was old. Didn’t think that way when I hit that number, or even five years later. Some days since have considered the possibility.

    I recall reading some science info several years ago saying people could live to 125 or 130. I just figured I might be one of them, or not, so don’t give too much more thought to the subject or to dying. When feeling really sick I have thought, “I wonder if this is it?” I never thought that when younger.

  6. Before listening, as I read to myself I could hear rhythms in my head. I began to think, what a clever lady, to adapt and update a popular form here — rap. So then I went back and imagined how I would perform it if I were a balding white guy rapper. It was fun, and I i thought, why not try It out on my granddaughter, who thinks I’m hopelessly stuck in the 20th century. (I probably won’t because i have memory”issues, and reading rap aloud from a print-out simply won’t do it.)

    Anyway, what a surprise and delight to hear how you heard it as you composed it. I thought back to childhood, and Miss Mardoff in the little Webster Groves library reading to us as we sat in a circle on the floor. And I thought of Nana, fingering her pearls as I nestled close to her on the couch in her antique parlor, listening as she read from a book about rabbits and an angry gardener.

    Well done you.I really enjoyed this!

    1. I love your story! Yes, rap and slam poetry are influencing me as I gallop on with my story. You hear it in the rush and rhythm and repetition and register: this is definitely read aloud stuff. And sometimes I think about music and wish I could play more than three chords on the ukulele. Please do it as rap on my behalf, Albert!

  7. so many great comments, thanks for the reminders everyone…(Just back from a personal retreat, where I did unwind but now with “ideas” on paper, need to put them into action) -but I’m tired out…long trip back home…connections didn’t match my expectations 🙂

  8. I’m 78 so 98 would be another 20 years. I think the world will be a lot different then, impossible to imagine. I used to say Andy and I are falling apart faster than the world is — that may no longer be true in another 10 years, say. I still say we were lucky to be born when we were — we were fortunate to have opportunities and a stable environment. We’ve always lived below our means, which means we have a cushion,so we’re enjoying what we have while we still have it.

  9. I REFUSE to think old. I tease myself, work my body, play games to keep my mind awake just to have a good time. I refuse to sit in that rocking chair. I am going to slide into home and scream “What a Ride!” (All of that said while sitting at a computer where I will be most of the day!) 😉 Excellent piece. I loved every word. I think I will print it and hang it on my wall right over my computer!

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