My grandmother, who was a stylish woman into her 90s, did not like growing old. “These aren’t the golden years,” she’d say. “They’re copper.”
Now that I’m 65, I have a lot more empathy for her sentiments. I don’t feel old, and I don’t think she ever did, either. But our bodies have a way of refuting that belief. All the more so with a disease like scleroderma.
I was in my late twenties when I first began to experience mysterious symptoms of arthralgia and swollen fingers, plus Raynaud’s and fatigue. When I was diagnosed in my early thirties, I quickly realized that what should have been a decade of coming into my own was, instead, a time of aging prematurely. My friends all had kids, already. Everyone else was full of energy and plans for the future. By contrast, Al and I were struggling with infertility, and I was always cold, achey, tired, stiff, losing the use of my hands, watching my face become more narrow and tight, and constantly experiencing strange symptoms, like painful breathing that turned out to be a bout of pleurisy.
It was hard to share with anyone but Al. I didn’t like going to the local scleroderma support group, because the vibe was all about how bad everyone felt. My doctors were supportive and knowledgeable, and physician friends provided some comfort. But, basically, I just kept my feelings to myself.
As my health began to improve (due to Penicillamine, which has since been discredited in the medical literature as a treatment for scleroderma, due to small research sample sizes, but which I believe saved my life), and our two wonderful daughters arrived—one by adoption and the other, by birth—I regained some dexterity and most of my energy. I went on to have a very full and active life. Thankfully, I still do.
But I also was always aware that my body was still aging faster than most of my peers’. Now that we’re all in our ’60s and early ’70s, however, that comparative trajectory has evened out. Our bodies fail, one way or another, at some point or another. All those years of dealing with limitations have given me one strange advantage—I’ve been managing with less for so long, that the inevitable losses of dexterity, mobility, and energy, as well as accompanying discomforts, just aren’t that upsetting. They’re simply familiar.
Not that I would wish scleroderma or any other long-term chronic illness on anyone at a young age—or any age, for that matter. But learning to cope with physical limits over decades has certainly made this transition somewhat easier. Or, perhaps, more silver than copper.
P.S. If you’re wondering about the title for this post, it’s drawn from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S.Eliot, a poem that takes on new depth for me with each passing year.
Image: Pineapple Supply Co.