But the big and little surprises keep coming, willy-nilly, faster and faster. They are most dramatic, of course, when a disabling or terminal illness strikes, and this may happen at any time. When I was growing up, polio could cut kids down like a scythe a swatch of hay in the field. Even today, meningitis is no respecter of youth and in a few hours may still wreak havoc with young lives.
When I was in my freshman year at university, a popular, brilliant student in my circle of friends had reported no symptoms at all till she developed a severe headache, but then was dead two days later from a brain tumor.
Usually however, in the US at least, catastrophic diseases occur later in life. Indeed, for most of us, the greater part of the aging process is relatively gradual and slow, a matter of decades, though the cumulative effects are daunting.
Hair thins out or hairlines recede and disappear. Wrinkles show up here and there, then spread and multiply, eventually taking over like the vines of a strangler fig.
Gravity, physicists tell us, is the weakest natural force. But after several decades of relentlessly weighing on our bodies, its effects can be considerable. Jowls, thighs, boobs, and butts all seek stasis at the center of the earth, distorting our beautiful youthful bodies in the process.
Eye-hand coordination suffers, not keeping up with new technologies such as the tiny buttons on petite cell phones or on digital cameras that can be hidden in one's hand. Eventually, even driving at night or negotiating our clogged highways during rush hours becomes problematic.
When in college, I read in a psychology text that the average person, after a peak at about age 20, loses around one IQ point for each year of increased age. Happily, this turns out not to be true. If it were, I'd probably have to be in a halfway house for the retarded or a nursing home by now.
Yet I have noticed an interesting tendency, every now and then, toward a verbal tossed salad, when the wrong names or words I speak get substituted for the ones I intended, while others just go AWOL when I need them.
As we get older, some things, like the plumbing, tend to work too often. Others don't work often enough.
With advancing age, various systems or organs shut down to a greater or lesser extent, thyroid, bronchopulmonary, integumentary...(It's alimentary, Dr. Watson.)
The skin acquires all manner of colorful new decorations as the years progress. Some are lumpy, some black, others red, some hairy, some look like warts, others moles, still more are scaly, itchy, sharp, bleed easily, etc. A few of these periodically can become cancerous and require treatment.
With shortening ligaments, more brittle or unstable joints, and other connective tissue conditions, just skipping or jogging a few yards may result in a trick knee, an ankle going out, or a foot tendon tearing and feeling as though one is stepping shoeless on sharp broken glass.
Often, as one ages, each of the spinal discs is compressed down to a fraction of its former thickness. An older person can therefore lose several inches of height between, for instance, ages 21 and 81. So to a group of young adults, a gathering of old folks can seem like so many munchkins or Lilliputians. As the back gets shorter, one's paunch seems to grow larger, in geometric progression.
Some gifts associated with growing older, though, are unpredictable. The delight of a long, almost scalding bath can top eating a hot fudge sundae! No surprise there. But who could have anticipated that this luxury plus arthritis might equal music? In the TMI (too much information) category, I love to submerge 95% or so of my bod beneath the steamy waters, leaving little out but my nose. Recently, I've noticed, when doing my sea-otter-in-a-hot-spring imitation, if I turn my head and neck while my ears are under the water, there is a mild, high-pitched rapidly repetitive percussive sound, as if one were lightly tapping a xylophone inside the upper spine. I wonder what new instruments may yet be discovered in the geriatric days ahead.
Despite all the common complaints about getting old, and whether in the coming years I find enough age-related organic music for only a small band or for even a major orchestra, I'll happily take whatever surprises and tunes are available, for as long as the adventure lasts.
Graphics by Shawn's Clipart & Webateria.