I live in a retirement community, and when somebody turns 90 here, we like to celebrate. A few months ago, a friend had a 90th birthday party that made me envious. I’m just 88, but I announced that I too was going to have a 90th birthday party this year—just in case I don’t make it to 90.
My friends found that funny. My adult children, not so much.
Younger people need to understand that when you reach a certain age, sharing a kind of gallows humor can be a good thing—at least in my experience. It allows me to touch on uncomfortable realities in ways that don’t feel grim or scary.
In my small circle of friends, gallows humor is also a form of bonding—it reflects our mutual recognition that we’re all in the same leaky boat. And whenever I open up a serious discussion of the things we kid about, they’re OK with that.
Many of the older people I know prefer to avoid subjects we make fun of. That’s their way of coping, and I respect it.
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my own death, but all the same, it’s there at the back of my mind in mundane ways. When I come across references to the next presidential election, I wonder whether I’ll still be alive to vote. I’m not anxious about it, just wondering. Sometimes, reading the news and worrying about what will happen in the future to my children and grandchildren, I suspect I’m lucky that I’ll be out of here before long.
I used to daydream about my own future, but these days I mostly take one day at a time—and enjoy anything that comes my way that strikes me as funny.
Like this remark by Woody Allen: “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” And this one by novelist William Saroyan: “Everybody has to die, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case.”
Joking about my own demise, however, does seem to upset at least one of my adult children. And I realize that if my father, toward the end of his life, had made that crack about 90th birthdays, I’d have found it painful to be reminded that he might not be around for much longer.
Consequently, I’ve promised myself not to rub my children’s noses in it again, but aside from that, I’m going to go on enjoying gallows humor.
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.