As Time Goes By
“Atrophied vagina” written boldly in the space provided for diagnosis on the health insurance form certainly caught my attention. For God’s sake, hadn’t the doctor told me not fifteen minutes before, with my feet up in stirrups and the Pap smear completed, “You’re in great shape for the shape you’re in”?
An atrophied vagina—I’d always figured that would be a near death experience! How had this happened? I looked pretty good on the outside. Well, a little looser in the jaw and a lot lower in the buttocks, but I still turned a few heads, if arthritis hadn’t made their necks too stiff to swivel, and I still wore a size 6. Would tearing up the insurance form, paying in cash, and swearing the receptionist to secrecy cover the paper trail? Or would it be better to hire a hit man to give the gynecologist an internal he’d never forget?
Age is a sneak. There I’d been moussed, tinted, toned—well, that’s a stretch—cholesterol free, calcium filled, swabbing selected body parts with sunscreen lotion ranging from 4 to 45, sort of an adult’s paint-by-the-numbers game. How could my insides have had the audacity to shrivel?
While I was busy running in the other direction, age seemed not only to have caught up but to have delivered a cruel blow beneath the belt, so to speak. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I’d arrived at a place in life I never expected to be: postmenopausal and pre–Social Security. And like many of us, I’d given it little thought and less planning. Yesterday, or so it seems, I partied, twisting the night away in my mini. Invitations had kept coming: I’ve had entree to AARP for years, Senior Partners Banking, which doesn’t save you a penny (though I have enjoyed the lower senior prices at many movie theaters), and discounted rides at Disney World. God only knew what thrills tomorrow would bring.
Up to then I had managed to ignore both the invitations and the calendar. I even moved to Florida, the only place in the world where you can be an ingenue at fifty. Really old people scared me, so I had avoided them, too, which is not easy in Pompano Beach where ubiquitous mortality, dressed in Easter-egg-pastel polyester pantsuits with elastic waists confronted you daily.
Ironically, I’d chosen to revel in the past, far preferring nostalgia and old movies to reality while living a script that didn’t have a last act. And why not? It was a great role; I enjoyed playing the part. Not serendipity, but even sans husband or a high-powered career life was good. Often damn good.
I’d reached an age that gave me automatic acceptance in some retirement homes, yet I worked harder at physical well-being than ever before, doing aerobics in the pool most mornings. I was much more grateful for manageable hair and a slim frame than I’d been at thirty. Both were accidents of genes rather than design. Yet despite decades of working in the fashion and beauty industries, I would occasionally buy a beautifully packaged ninety-five-dollar jar of grease that promised to stave off the ravages of time. I applied makeup with the deft touch achieved by eons of practice and plucked gray hairs from my brow with the skill of a surgeon. If I didn’t slow down the plucking, I’d have alopecia of the eyebrows. But when the lights over the mirror were pink enough and with eyeglasses vision that was less than acute, it had seemed worth the effort. I’d requested that my cosmetic bag and my rosary beads be tucked into my casket for the same reason, just in case.
Control has always been an issue—big time. I’ve always preferred being in charge. And I had believed I had the solution to most of life’s problems, figuring that if you kept the outside wrappings tight and shiny, the package wouldn’t unravel. However, that day in the doctor’s office, as I faced the receptionist and the diagnosis, my usual optimistic attitude was seriously challenged. No matter how much I resented it or rouged the other cheek, I was getting older, and it was out of my control. Scary. Would I wind up being afraid of me?
When my periods had started playing hide and seek, here one month, missing the next two or three, I decided not to go on estrogen, alone or paired with progesterone. The history of cancer in my family was paramount in my decision. A woman gynecologist in Manhattan had concurred.
Would this be my reward for having chosen—possibly for the first time in my life—health over vanity? I knew that once my estrogen took a hike, osteoporosis might or might not arrive, my sex drive might or might not diminish, and I might or might not have ghastly night sweats, nervous fits, or the vapors. I’d gone the calcium and exercise route, trusting my bones would hold me up straight. And so far none of the above had plagued me. Did this grim prognosis bode a worse diagnosis?
A blurb in Vogue magazine later revealed the surprising results of a Clinique Truth/Beauty Survey, a nationwide poll that attempted to discover how women really felt about getting older. Notice that wording—not growing old, not aging, but the sugar-coated “getting older.” Most of the women polled had considered fifty-four “the end of youth.” On the day of the infamous diagnosis I’d already passed that milestone. Never mind ruing the end of youth; what I felt qualified as panic.
And I just kept “getting older”! I’d considered myself a fighter and a survivor; however, it’s easy to be spunky when you believe the problem you’re facing will have a positive resolution. Growing old seemed totally negative, and facing old age cheerfully an oxymoron. While I had no plans to go gently into that final good night, aging proved more than tough to accept: It was goddamn depressing. If depression is anger turned inward—Group Therapy 101—I’d better do a pirouette and segue into an attitude adjustment. Ready or not, Act 3 would be coming up. I knew I wanted writer’s credit!
After that dreadful day at the doctor’s I remember driving home on a road parallel to the ocean, parking the car, taking off my shoes, and hitting the beach. The sea comforts me. A true Cancer the crab, a water sign.
I love the beach in real life and in the movies. Deborah Kerr and a young Burt Lancaster locked in sand-covered sex as the waves rolled in; Holly Hunter with her piano in a sand trap, only to be rescued by a surprisingly sexy Harvey Keitel; Beaches, the sandy beginning and ending for Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey; a young Susan Sarandon and an old Burt Lancaster on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. I have great faith that somewhere on a beach in eternity I’ll run into Burt.
It had been raining just before I left the car. As Floridians say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” As if drawn with a brush stroke, a rainbow appeared. Its colors turned the sultry late-afternoon sky into a glorious picture. Did the Pleiades have a day job painting rainbows? The sky brightened, and so did my mood. Breathing the ocean air, I had a mini awakening, a low-grade spiritual experience. Take this age thing a day at a time. Carpe diem. An atrophied vagina isn’t fatal. It turned out to be less than an inconvenience. Romance and Replens (an over-the-counter lubricant) can conquer all.
A later reevaluation of estrogen therapy with my current doctor changed my mind and my body! With a daily dose of Prempro, the problem is history.
The time had come to accept and admit that I would grow old. No matter how clever we are, there’s no way to beat the clock—and I certainly wanted it to keep on ticking. Though I didn’t know it then, I’d stumbled on the first step to becoming a WOW. Over the next several years I searched for and found an irreverent, pragmatic, healthy, and, yes, fun formula for growing old . . . while remaining foxy forever.
I knew I had to begin major work on my resentment of aging. Though I’ll never wear polyester pantsuits and I’ll always believe Easter-egg pastels look better in nurseries—some chic babies, if asked, might prefer checks or plaids—I decided that my acceptance of the aging process would be essential to my happiness. My attitude, along with my body and soul, had to change.
I also knew change is a bitch.