Just a Girl

Linda Carroll and friend at Linda's 80th birthday celebration.

Dear Friends,

To Live Fully & Wholeheartedly

My feelings have fluctuated wildly these last few months as I approach 80—the “older than elderly” category. When I miss my minuscule dose of blood pressure medication, I feel panic that my heart will explode. When my back aches, I wonder if it’s osteoporosis and my days of walking are coming to an end. When I find myself in bed at 7 pm, exhausted from eating dinner and watching the news, I dread bedtime getting earlier and earlier with each passing day. “Rage, rage at the dying of the light,” a line from a poem by Dylan Thomas, keeps repeating in my mind as I watch myself doing the opposite—not “go gentle into that good night.”

As my family plans a big occasion for me to celebrate my life, I’m reading books on dying well while imagining (and experiencing) endless symptoms of my decline even as I look for a new personal trainer and up my walking practice. I find myself planning an international trip while reviewing my advance directive. Losing friends to illness and death, I notice signs everywhere of the inevitable ending that oldness brings. Yet, just as I feel the field of loved ones grow thinner, new and amazing friendships appear in my life.

It happened last night. At a dinner at Rancho La Puerta, I sat beside Deborah Szekely. AGAIN.

A photograph of Linda Carroll and Deborah Szekely.

Linda with Deborah Szekely

Deborah is the founder of “The Ranch,” as it’s fondly called. When I first met her 21 years ago, I was so anxious. I was in my early 60s, and she was a formidable figure in my mind, a founder of the modern fitness resort and spa movement, a luminary who was often spoken of as “the wellness guru” of our time. Her status bordered on celebrity. Of course, that was when she was younger. She was over 80 when I met her, a time some see as advanced and past one’s prime, but she was neither stooped by age nor staring vacantly out the window. Instead, she looked vital and engaged. When I spoke with her she said, with a beautiful presence and grace, “I’m thinking about what I want to do next with my life.” Then she began to list possibilities for a new career, a book, a memoir, and entering politics. She saw the world as a space that was wide open to her and told me she’d never been so excited about life.

Last night, she was as elegant as ever. At 102, she was full of talk about the books she was reading, her daily Pilates workout, and an upcoming trip to New York City, where she plans on seeing five plays in five nights. I told her the story of when we first met and how intimidated I’d felt by her. I also mentioned how old 80 had seemed to me then, but that, in 10 days, I myself will be 80. She told me I was “just a girl” and laughed heartily.

Certainly, at 80, there’s a sense that I’m moving closer to “the end.” But the end could be a long time from now, or it could come soon. I know death isn’t predictable or confined to the old in any way. Losing my best friend to an accident at 24, a four-month-old baby to a heart defect, and two sets of parents—as well as many dear friends and beloved animal companions—has brought this truth home over and over again over the course of my life.

When my mother was 90 and my stepfather 95, we finally had an emotional but important conversation about how to care for her after his inevitable death, yet she was the one who died within months of that conversation, not him. My stepfather lived for nearly another decade, until he was almost 104. As my dear friend and I often say to one another, “I know nothing.” I think death casts a shadow over every celebration; it’s just not as obvious to us when we are younger.

I’m grateful to Deborah, always 21 years ahead of me, for reminding me that turning 80 is a time to wonder what I want to do next while also acknowledging that turning 80 represents a passage into a new season of life. I had a teacher once who taught a class on the importance of mentors in inspiring us in everything, especially aging—and Deborah has been that mentor for me. I’m entering this new season expecting to have my share of losses but I’m also excited by the idea that there will be grand opportunities to live fully and wholeheartedly in a world of endless possibilities until the very last moment.