I recently turned 84, and I’m not happy about it.
It’s not that I mind being old. My problem is that my dad died when he was 84, and it’s in the back of my mind that I might too.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. Friends tell me that they have half-expected to breathe their last at the same age as a parent who died. We share a kind of homemade superstition: we didn’t absorb it from the culture, we invented it for ourselves.
The first time I experienced it, I was 14. I’d been named for my father’s sister, who died of complications from strep throat at 14, and I wondered whether the same thing would happen to me. The prospect didn’t scare me—I didn’t really think it was likely, and anyway I was a teenager, so deep down I felt immortal. I did develop strep throat that year, but I survived it thanks to modern antibiotics. I felt vindicated: I’d been partly right and I’d lived to brag about it.
The second time I was faced with a family expiration date, my mother was the model. She died at 50. I don’t remember actually worrying about whether I’d make 51, but it was a relief to get there.
For many people, this kind of superstition is, I think, on a par with carrying a rabbit’s foot when you’re a kid or playing your lucky number repeatedly in the lottery as an adult. You sort of believe in what you’re doing and you sort of don’t.
So at 84, I feel as if my life has acquired a deadline once again, though rationally I realize that if I kick the bucket during the next year, it will be a coincidence, not fate.
Still, the possibility is there at the back of my mind. But so is the possibility that I’ll reach 85 with an especially good reason to celebrate, much as I did when I turned 15 and 51.
Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.