Today it seems as though we’re conditioned to fear growing old. In a society that is continuously searching for the fountain of youth, it’s difficult not to become overwhelmed by the prestige and glamour of youth. Prime time television shows like Nip/Tuck and the ever-timeless classic 90210 display the intense desirability to be young and flawless. Sandwiched between these shows are endless television ads boasting some new anti-wrinkle cream, Botox surgery, or work out system proven to make you look ten years younger with just one use! Even my mother, an incredibly poised as well as strong-willed woman, playfully tosses around the idea of a quick facelift. Growing old also means subjecting your body and mind to decay. Alzheimer’s can rob a man of a lifetime of memories and turn his family into strangers, while arthritis can slowly pick away at his joints until he can no longer enjoy the activities he once loved. He may become completely dependent on others, losing the ability to perform even the simplest everyday tasks.
For a long time, I accepted society’s dismal depiction of growing old. Then I met Arthur, who taught me that I actually believe in worthiness of wrinkles.
With an entire hour left on my shift as a volunteer in the transportation department at Lutheran General Hospital, I was completely exhausted that Friday night at seven o’clock. Just as I was finally starting to relax, the call from dispatch came in: the 8th floor nurses station needed a wheelchair transport for a patient discharge. I headed into the cold, industrial service elevator and pushed the small number on the door and it dimly lit up with a sick orange light. The eighth floor was the oncology ward which meant that it was, at any particular time, full of weary cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and worn out, visiting families scattered with uncertainty throughout the hallway.
I exited the heavy elevator and ventured out into the stuffy, sterile hallway filled with the endless dull humming of medical equipment and televisions. As I reached the room, the petite nurse gently lifted the man into the wheelchair before quietly squeezing his frail hand and remarking that she would see him next week. He was a regular.
After exiting the passenger elevator, we pulled into the long glass hallway that overlooked the hospital’s pick up zone. I settled into a waiting room chair that faced Arthur. His dark blue, plaid Irish cap rested lightly on his wispy, white hair. He was wearing a light brown, tweed jacket with worn out beige elbow patches. Underneath, he wore a bright red-knit sweater that swallowed him up to his delicate neck. His face looked pale and weak under the fluorescent lighting, but I could make out the feeble wrinkles loosely stretched across his face. He looked up at me through his thick-rimmed circular glasses as he let out a chuckle with a surprising heartiness.
Just as I was settling in to quietly discuss the weather for about the sixteenth time that night, the old man turned directly to me and quite emphatically introduced himself as Mr. Arthur O’Shea, the one and only. I barely finished introducing myself when Arthur launched into a story of the first night he took his wife to see Gene Tierney star in the famous movie that bears my name. As we waited about an hour for his cab to arrive, Arthur told me story after story; I learned about everything from his favorite jazz bands to his many high school activities, to the birth of his first grandson.
I tried really hard to listen to every single word he had to say, but in the back of my mind I just could not get over his wonderful and contagious disposition. Never before had I seen a man 88 years old have such a vigorous exuberance for life. He could barely stand without some assistance yet his wit, charm, and energy were as engaging as ever. Incredibly, he had to come to the hospital alone every single Friday night in order to undergo exhausting chemotherapy, yet still his grin didn’t show a single trace of fatigue.
In retrospect, the fact that he had lived nearly a whole century gave his personality and stories a unique flavor of experience. His material was raw after all; he had lived fearlessly his entire life and clearly had no intentions of giving up that demeanor. The wrinkles on his face were evidence of every time he laughed and every time he cried. Through his stories, Arthur was embracing his past; he explained that his past, after all, defined who he was and he had no intention of giving that up just because his hip wasn’t as reliable as it used to be.
Growing old, I realized then, is not something that needs to be feared or shunned. All we can do is live our lives without doubts or fear and look forward to new experiences in the future. We must make mistakes and try new things and let them grow with us as we age. Wrinkles can only be earned throughout a lifetime of experience and emotion. We must embrace wrinkles as an undeniable visual record of both everything we have lived through and everything that has uniquely shaped who we are.
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