Competition, Morning of, Day Two

I feel old. Okay, so I spent yesterday fencing against women at a minimum 20 years younger than myself, but it really isn't that. Or only that. It's that three years ago, when I was 40, I was in the best shape I had ever been in my life, thirty pounds lighter than I am now (albeit probably fifteen pounds underweight, to judge from the way my body reacted), able for the first time in decades to run with pleasure, able to keep up with even the college-age fencers in footwork, able to fence a fifteen-touch bout and stay with it hard throughout. And then my father died and I grieved for a year. I stopped coloring my hair, in part because it was falling out, in part because everyone kept telling me how beautiful the white was with my face. My yoga center closed and I could not find a class elsewhere that fit with my schedule, so I fell back on books to keep my home practice alive. And now, three and a half years later, for reasons I really do not fully understand, I feel old. Oh, and I've got presbyopia; to do anything close, I have to peer over the tops of my glasses, just like I remember my father doing for years.

Does everybody go through this at 43? My husband has so few gray hairs, you still have to really look for them and he says he hasn't noticed any change in his eyes; he is a year older than I am. My sister, who is two years younger than I am, still looks thirty, although she most certainly colors her hair. But there she is, vaulting horses and running miles every day. How is it that my body has decided to pack it in when theirs haven't? I don't eat meat, I barely drink (maybe one or two a week), I stopped smoking thirteen years ago when I was pregnant with my son. My blood pressure is the same it has always been, comfortably low; my pulse, when I went in for my check-up a month ago, was nearly as low as I remember it being in high school, when I was swimming hours a day.

So how is it that suddenly, after twenty years of yoga, I am so stiff in the morning, so much so that I am not even limber by the end of my practice? How is it that, after five years of fencing, my legs are more tired than they were even in the first year? I can't even imagine doing the footwork we used to do two years ago. What have I done wrong? Some might say nothing. I can, after all, still put my hands flat to the floor with my legs straight. I can do headstand without really thinking about it. I wish that my backbend were more comfortable, but I can still do it. I'm chary of shoulderstand because I pulled or tore something in my shoulder nearly ten years ago, but if I prepare for it properly, I can still hold it well. I may not be able to fight as hard as the teenagers in our bouts, but I am there on the strip, making them work. Sometimes I even beat them (just not yesterday). What more do I want of myself and my body after 43 years?

Well, as usual, I would prefer not to feel (and look) a decade older than my sister, but it isn't really that I want to be 23 again. I actually look better now than I did at 23. Nor would I give up the experience I have gained in those years. I could color my hair, but I don't really want to. It tended to look fake even when I thought I was choosing the color that my hair used to be. Also, I think what Anne Kreamer found when she showed people photographs of women with their hair colored and not is right: nobody is really fooled about how old we are whatever our hair color. My sister believes in surgery and is, in fact, scheduled for more at Thanksgiving. I am actually happy wearing glasses (she's had her retinas done) and I don't really mind the wrinkles in my skin. What I want is to look and feel the way I did three and a half years ago, before my father died.

He was 66, almost 67, when he died, still working hard at the hospital, still racing his car (Buick Grand National hot rod, eighth of a mile). After decades of not being able to get any real research done, his work was finally taking off. He had so many dreams still to realize, and then he died. My husband would remind me that it is remarkable that my father lived as long as he did, smoking two or three packs a day, eating big steak dinners once a day and living on coffee the rest of the time, keeping a surgeon's hours, never exercising. But he died of an embolism, not emphysema or cancer. One day he was alive, recovering from surgery after a minor stroke; the next he was dead. The news came to me via my husband, who arrived at our fencing salle, phone in hand. "The doctor needs to talk to you; your father collapsed and they need to know whether to keep him on life support." By the time I got through to the doctor--one of my father's former medical students, whom I first met when I was 10--my father was gone.

You'd think I'd be crying while I was writing this. Strangely, I'm not. I cried for a year, every day for the first months, still uncontrollably for months thereafter. Easter is still hard for me, when we sing "Resucitó" and how "death has passed away" and "raised up to the kingdom we shall live in love", when all I can think is that I won't see him for the rest of my life. (Okay, now I'm crying, after finding the music for you). But, then, I have no idea how long the rest of my life will be. Perhaps I am dying now. Perhaps that is why my body is so stiff every morning such that sometimes I can barely walk (this after an especially hard practice). Perhaps I will not live another 40 years, like my great-aunts on both sides, but die much sooner, like three of my grandparents, in my 60s. Am I feeling sorry for my father, dying in the midst of his research and his competitions, or myself, for not being able to see him anymore?

I've wondered before today whether what's happening to my body is somehow a reaction of grief. It's not that my relationship with my father was easy (I've mentioned the divorce; that was when I was 11; there are other things that are not appropriate to discuss here), but it was real. He would argue with me and push me. I wrote my first book in answer to the question that he always asked: "Why?" And now, without him to badger me, I'm not quite sure why to go on. Except to prove to myself that I can? I need a new stimulus and I can't find it. My husband is happy with me the way I am, whether I win all my bouts or none. My son has his own life to shape; I'm not doing this for him. But my father always pushed me, always insisted I could be more than I was. How well I remember that afternoon on the mountain side at Jackson, the slope invisible in the fog, me in tears, Dad telling me I could get down that mountain if only I would just stand up and ski. Come to think of it, he must have been around 43 at that time. Actually, he was 45.

I don't want to quit. I've spent five years learning this skill and I'm just now starting to understand it (fencing, that is). If I sit down in the snow now, how will I ever know if I could have made it to the bottom? I have to believe that age and experience counts for something, even if my body seems to want to differ. If only I could understand why the change has happened so quickly. It's easy to color one's hair; how does one color one's muscles and joints?

P.S. Read now Badger's meditation on us lady warriors, asking for grace.

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