On growing old

This article by Ailsa Piper was in the SMH today. It was so beautiful that I just had to record it here for future rereading. It speaks so well of loss and ageing and keeping on going forward.

The summer after my husband died, I learnt to swim. I was 56

In 1975, just before my 16th birthday, I read in the summer issue of Dolly magazine that everyone needed some “me” time.

This sounded grown-up, enticing.

The editor suggested checking into a hotel to unwind.

I’m not sure I knew the difference between a hotel, a motel and a pub, but there was a place near us with a pool and a shady garden, so I guessed that it qualified. I saved my pocket money and after-school earnings and announced to Mum that I wanted to book in.

She hesitated, but then agreed – on the proviso that I didn’t leave the grounds. She made the booking, dropped me off with an overnight bag, and I entered the world of adulthood.

I read my book. I flicked between the three television channels. Or were there four? I lay by the pool, trying to look “interesting”, but my fair skin burned, so I had a bath, using the bubbles provided. I dozed. I sat. I watched time passing until 10am on the Sunday, and when Mum arrived and asked how it had been, I gave my most enigmatic smile and said it was “perfect”.

I could slap the vapid creature I was back then. When Mum had dropped me off that Saturday, she was on her way to clean a couple of houses to supplement her wages from her day job. My 37-year-old working mother, who seemed so old to me, was surely the one in need of a silent room and some solitude.

Back then, I longed to be 28. I’ve no idea why that particular age called to me, but it was a fixed point I’d wanted to achieve for years. When I did, it didn’t disappoint – that year, I fell hard and fast for a lanky bloke called Peter. We’d only known each other six weeks when we decided to get married. I moved interstate to live with him, and we had almost 28 years together before he died.

Twenty-eight is about the age I’ve felt myself to be, ever since.

Mum was 57 when she died.

When I reached my 58th birthday, I felt lucky. Relieved. Some part of me had never believed I’d outlive my mother. If she could be taken, anyone could. She could break horses; cook for a shearing team and party with them until dawn; and skewer pious moralising with razor humour.

She and my stepfather laboured hard on their farm, but money was always elusive, and eventually they had to sell. A potential buyer came to inspect the place, and as he sat in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil, he quizzed Mum about the property.

“Any problems with snakes?”

“No, none at all,” she replied, opening the crockery cupboard.

There, on the shelf below the cups and saucers, lay a coiled Stimson’s python, its red-brown blotches incongruous against the pastel crockery. Unfazed by this surprise visitor, Mum grabbed a rifle and shot it. She selected a teapot, closed the cupboard and then went back to the conversation. The man bought the farm.

Around the time of my 60th birthday, I began referring to myself as old. I like saying it. Lots of my friends didn’t get to, because of cancer, anorexia, HIV and overdoses. Mum never got to say it, except when observing her children’s growth.

“I must be old,” she said, when she was 38. “Just look at you, all grown up.” She was applying my make-up for the school formal at the time. In her cut-off shorts and bikini top, she looked just like Gidget.

Not so long ago, I had a fall. My forehead smashed onto the pavement and my nose scraped along loose gravel. My wrists took my full body weight as my kneecaps cracked on asphalt. I wailed like a broken animal.

Bruce, one of my early-morning swimming cohort, rescued me. He held my bleeding hand, insisting I lay still. Ambulances arrived – two of them. Other swimmers came. I was checked and cosseted, taken home and nursed. But for days afterwards, waking or sleeping, I flinched as I recalled my head plunging toward the sidewalk. Even now, my right hand bats at the air when I remember.

“Stop saying you’ve had a fall,” a friend insisted. “Say you tripped.”


“Because only old people have a fall.”

It hurt when I laughed. “But I am old!”

“Shut up! Don’t say that either. People will think you’re losing it.”

My friend Tony, who is 85, says life is a continual process of letting go: we let go of the womb, our family, school, our childhood. We let go of people we love: we grow and go, we move and leave. We let go daily, often without even noticing.

But there comes a time when we begin to worry about what we’re losing. Things fall apart, not to be mended. Bones turn to chalk. The world moves faster and we feel slower. Hairs grow on chins that should be bare and it thins where it should be thick. Sunspots appear as memories and friends disappear. There’s shock. How can this be, this falling away? Aren’t we still 28?

Twice daily, my 89-year-old father makes an 800-metre round trip to the shops. He buys the paper and a scratchie in the morning, and in the afternoon he provisions himself for dinner. When I suggest that my siblings and I want to arrange a meal delivery service, he refuses. “I prefer to walk. And cook.”

Sometimes he can’t get air into his lungs. His legs are twigs, poking out from his shorts. A strong nor’-easter could blow him over. “I just take it slowly,” he says, and I’m unsure if there’s admonishment in his words.

I wasn’t rushing when I had my fall. I wasn’t looking at my phone, or distracted by sky, bird or flower. I was strolling towards Sydney’s glittering harbour for my daily dip, which I make in company with a group of regulars who have been swimming at that same curve of sand for years. Most are in their eighth or ninth decade. Last year, Esme celebrated her 100th birthday by the water. She wore a spangled kaftan.

I didn’t learn to swim until I was 56. It was the summer after Peter died. Broken, I decided to try to remake myself. Perhaps I could heal from the outside in. I’d always been afraid of the water, but I took to it as though I’d been waiting for it all my life – and perhaps I had. A return to the womb?

Maybe some things that get lost can be regained.

On certain mornings, as I lapped parallel to the shoreline, I’d catch a glimpse of Esme’s carer, a slight girl in cotton track pants, lugging a bucket up the concrete steps from the beach. Esme had cancer.

“It won’t kill me,” she told me, “but there’s no repairing it, either.”

She couldn’t swim any more. Scabs marked her face and hands. She missed the salt water, so her carer brought it to her. Sometimes, she lowered a shin into the bucket and stood, twitching at the bite of brine. Other times, the bucket was placed between the handles of her walking frame, so she could plunge her face in, holding her breath in the silky darkness. When she emerged, her thin hair dripped and the scabs were soft.

“This beach is populated with widows,” she said to me once. I’d never told her I was a widow, but after that I saw the others in their black togs differently. She kept reminding herself of the velvety feel of salt water until she died, just before her 101st birthday. I was away on a long hiking trail at the time. On my return, I slid into the harbour and stroked through my salty sorrow. It’s impossible to cry underwater.

Eighty-five-year-old Tony calls me a kid. He frowns when I say I’m old. “What does that make me?” he asks. Then he answers himself. “Fortunate.”

Dad calls himself lucky. A Depression-era child on a West Australian wheat farm, he made toys from knucklebones and fruit tins. His mother was killed in a hit-and-run accident when Dad was in his 20s, just four months after he got married. Six years later, Mum left to be with another man. Dad eventually remarried, but his second wife died, in bed beside him, when she was barely 50. Five years after that, he kept vigil with me when Mum lay dying.

Dad has never known worldly success, nor won a lottery, despite buying all those tickets, yet he insists he has had 89 years of good luck. Perhaps his defining quality, a tender tentativeness, was formed by loss.

When Peter died, I became a widow, an ancient dark thing – but I was also a child again. Dad said the magic words that only parents can utter and hope to be believed. “Everything will be all right. You’ll see. It will take time but everything will be all right.”

Back when I was 30 and Dad was 59, I railed against his priorities. Rotarians mending fences for widows seemed pointless compared to the Berlin Wall’s fall. Then, in my 40s, we began to take country drives when I visited. Focused on the road and a shared destination, I listened as he talked. He made me laugh, and I realised how long and patiently he’d waited for me to get his jokes.

A couple of years ago, I asked if he’d like to take a three-day cruise on the Indian Ocean – something different. He jumped at it. Shipboard, he drew people out of themselves, and I was so proud of him. I finally saw him as a person. I liked him so much. I wonder …

Have I deliberately put distance between us at times, like a 16-year-old trying to individuate? Maybe recognising similarity is a marker of growth.

Recently, answering the phone, Dad slipped up and sent me back to childhood. “Hello Bubby!”

“Da-ad!” I said, in exactly the tone I’d used at 16, trying to convince him I could stay out late. “I’m old!”

He chuckled, insisting that wasn’t possible, and I heard an echo of Mum, applying my make-up for that long-ago school formal.

Now I’m 60, at least I know the difference between a hotel, a motel and a pub. I still want “me” time, but I’ve also learnt I can’t exist in isolation. No, that’s not right: I can’t grow in isolation.

And isn’t that the point – to grow old?

Edited extract from Griffith Review 68: Getting On, edited by Ashley Hay, out now.

Ailsa Piper has worked for over 35 years as a writer, director, actor, teacher, speaker and broadcaster.