Janet Sheridan: On Turning 70

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Janet Sheridan

In 2011, a few months before my 69th birthday, Joel and I decided to climb Huron Peak near Buena Vista, a summit Colorado Fourteeners Magazine described as “a shapely, shy peak hidden in the heart of the Sawatch.”

I worried as we finalized our plans, fearing I’d wear out when the hike became strenuous, and Joel would have to roll me back to the truck.

In the preceding decade, I’d climbed other fourteeners with vigor and enjoyment, experiencing only brief moments of minor hysteria. Recently, however, during less challenging hikes, diminished energy and sore knees had reminded me of my dad, mournfully singing, “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.”

I managed to banish my concerns as Joel and I started our climb on a promising day in August. My spirits soared, buoyed by the beauty of daybreak in the mountains and the companionship of my husband: a bond unharmed by our drive through an obliterating darkness to the trailhead on a rugged donkey path during which I miss-navigated two turns, and Joel used profanity.

Gradually our rhythmic walk, buffeted by cool morning air, became a prolonged series of steep switchbacks, causing us to slow our pace and shed our jackets. Later, when the path leveled and led us through a high mountain meadow filled with flowers and bird song under a blue-bowl sky, I felt fully alive.

Then the trail changed abruptly: we began the belabored breathing and cautious foot placement of the final ascent to Huron’s narrow, wind-blown summit.

After resting and exclaiming at the top-of-the-world view, we started down. As always, the descent surprised me with its length, steep pitches and unrelenting stress on my vulnerable knees.

When we reached the truck at the trailhead, I congratulated myself for accomplishing my goal, forgot my earlier apprehensions and anticipated the uninhibited lunch I would allow myself in Leadville.

Now, a year later as I turn seventy, the tics and twinges of my aging body have become outright complaints, and my optimistic outlook has been altered as well. I find myself re-evaluating both my physical capabilities and my unthinking optimism about the future.

I’ve always enjoyed my birthdays, reflecting on the mostly good life I’ve lived and the relationships I’ve enjoyed, looking forward to many years ahead. But this birthday is different.

For the first time I see my life as limited. I understand that it must end on a future date I can now imagine. It is no longer so far in the future that it seems forever.

When young, I yearned to be older, took risks and denied my mortality. During my middle years, I became more realistic about my age, but played a comforting game.

As November Ninth neared, I’d think: “So, I’ll be turning fifty; if I make it to ninety, I’ll live forty more years. That’s forever.”

Then, at sixty: “Hmm. If I make it to ninety, I have thirty years ahead of me. When I think back thirty years, it seems ages ago. I’ve a lot of living left to do.”

But now I think that ninety is twenty years away, and that the last twenty years have passed in a flash, seeming to take no time at all. So I wrestle with my new, fully realized understanding: life is finite; I cannot rely on endless tomorrows.

Some readers may wonder why it took me so long to grasp this basic concept; others may shake their heads at my foolishness for wasting time thinking about it.

I suppose the recognition of our mortality arrives for each of us at its own pace.

It turned up on my doorstep this fall as leaves blossomed to a vivid yellow, the Yampa dwindled to a lazy stream and I contemplated my 70th birthday.

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