by Ulf Nilson

The challenge hit me in a strange way in Cagnes-sur-Mer, where we live when we’re not in Sweden on Värmdö island close to Stockholm. I was sitting on the terrace in the sun, wearing only a pair of shorts. The paper I was reading bored me (it was probably Le Monde) so I put it aside and just sat there, lazily looking at my feet.
“Shit,” I thought. “Oh, shit, how ugly that bunion is. Perhaps I should do something about it.”
Then, at the very same moment came another thought from another, differently wired corner of my brain:
“Do something about it? Why should I do something about it? I won’t have it much longer anyway.”
That’s exactly what I was thinking as I continued staring at my old foot. “No use in spending money on you, old friend, who’s carried me around the globe so many times (and onto so many obscure pathways). No use to bother, because soon you won’t be needed anymore, because soon you will be dead and gone.”
Just like me—whatever I am.
Or was.


I sat there in the sun with my foot. It was the left one, the one that is … excuse me, WAS, the best in the world at soccer. I could dribble with my right one, but it was with my left foot that I scored. It was ugly but reliable. That it now reminded me of death probably also had to do with the fact that I had just come back from Shanghai, the most amazing place on earth today, a city full of life, full of happiness, and full of a vitally so wild and thrilling that you catch yourself smiling at every other Chinese man you infallibly ran in to.
Shanghai is a miracle: One shouldn’t have to die when something like Shanghai exists. At least—and this I inform my left foot—one ought to be able to stroll around the world many decades more and discover new Shanghais, new miracles.
The foot doesn’t answer. Feet never do. And perhaps that’s just as well, just imagine what they might say.
Am I a pessimist then? Old and fearful?
Noooo! Absolutely not. Sure, the thought of dying creeps up on me more than it used to, but more as a curiosity than a fear. Let me therefore continue my conversation with my left foot and everyone else willing to listen.

You invariably begin aging the day you are born, but I’ve never felt OLD. Tired at times, yes, but never old in the sense of feeling redundant or no longer excited about things. Aging happens gradually and slowly and sometimes you’re not aware of it at all, with the exception of these particular, somehow predestined incidents.
A few weeks of anxiety at 40, when you officially hit middle age, a bit of a crisis at 60—but nothing serious—and after 65 and 70 mostly a feeling of endless freedom. I have had an incomprehensible (and I really do mean incomprehensible) life, richer and more exciting than I could’ve ever dreamt about when I was young.
Everything just happened, and then even more happened.

And then again more.

Trains left. Wars, revolutions and other dramas poured down and jet planes crossed the skies. Even if it wasn’t all that visible (or felt that way) I was always intoxicated by my life and only occasionally unhappy. Still I must state (dear old bumpy left foot) that it has never been better than now, just now, after 70. I will come back to this fact later.

Anxiety came creeping up on me when I, hrm, retired from Expressen. Who was I without my job?
I think almost ALL senior citizens feel the same way. You close a door behind you (literally speaking). You close a door to a room that has meant a great deal in your life. You close a door, and according to the rules of the game you may NEVER open it again. For millions and millions of people in the rich part of the world, this might just be the most traumatic experience in their life, barring birth itself. The room in which you spent so many hours no longer belongs to you, and all the remarkable things you accomplished at that desk might have never happened.
It is over. You are now nothing, or close to nothing.
Right away you will notice how people call you less than they used to. There are fewer invitations. And if you yourself take the initiative, chances are you’ll get snubbed. Senior citizens are quickly isolated and often ill-treated. When we get angry, and we frequently do, we say:
“It’s obvious that our only mission is to die as soon as possible so those sons-of-bitches don’t have to pay our pension.”
The sons-of-bitches being the state, or the younger ones, or YOU!
This is one of Sweden’s and many other countries’ biggest problems, and I will criticize the way old people are being dealt with for as long as I live. It’s scandalous, for one thing because we old folks often give up without a fight. We just sulk and sigh in some mental corner: “Of course we’d better make way for the young...”

For me personally, things quickly took a different turn. I was lying in bed one beautiful morning, thinking. What am I really these days? Old, was the answer. And what is my task? Do I even have a task?
“Live!” I said suddenly and loudly to Aino, who was lying on the other side of the bed reading a food magazine.
“Sure,” she said. “Do as you wish.”
I decided to celebrate my decision—one of the most important ever—by rolling over and sleeping another half hour. MY TIME BELONGS TO ME. If I want to sleep, then sleep I will. If I want to go to Florida, then to Florida I will go. I don’t need to sit by the telephone, as in the old days, waiting for some editor at Expressen to call me.
I don’t, truth be told, even NEED a phone.
All I need is to enjoy life as much as possible. To have as great a time as I can have. What an assignment! And believe me, I have worked hard at it ever since that morning when I discovered aging is (or at least CAN or SHOULD be) freedom.

OK, so even freedom has its limitations. As you all know, you don’t have as much energy after 40, or—and allow me to be a bit generous here—at least not after 70. My knees hurt when I try to run fast, and I get breathless more quickly. I often wake up too early, and it’s hard for me to fall back to sleep again: Much too obvious signs of age and much too irritating.
But, women are just as beautiful (and just as mysterious) as they were before I had glasses, books are just as interesting, food as delicious and wine as amazing. My curiosity is greater than ever before, probably because I have more time to do something about it, and also because I have a computer in front of me. With the help of Internet, somebody once said I have access to 99.99% of all knowledge the earth has gathered since the Big Bang, or for those who are religious, since Creation, millions of years ago. I read documents and work with numbers, I draw conclusions, I daydream and I travel in time and space. I get angry and I laugh, I mutter to myself and I write a bit here and there. That is when I don’t just sit and stare and think long and winding and completely senseless thoughts like: I wonder what it’s like around Palais Royale in Paris these days? Or Cairo—will that city be able to survive another decade? Or Shanghai, the city about which it has been said that if the Lord allows it to stand, it should apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.…

One day I come across an old diary from the time I was a young man of 30. It’s revealing. I read about friends and enemies, girls, jobs, career, ambitions. And soon I am seized by disgust over the young man who was once me.
What an eager beaver!
How self-centered!
What a ruthless and selfish prig!
What a hard-boiled, conceited and repulsive person; people like him ought not be allowed to exist!
Everything was so IMPORTANT to this young man, it was all so loaded with ambition and desire. Everyone around him blends into the background behind the Great Nilson when I read about them, and yet these are often people I know I loved.
I was terrible, I think, still completely honest. I locked myself into myself as if into a prison.
Perhaps it wasn’t all that bad in reality, but still, reading the diary gives me a liberating insight: How wonderful that that kind of life is now over. How wonderful to have lived life at full speed (and gotten hit accordingly) and to still have it there, in all its glory. To become a senior citizen sometimes feels like being handed a second life as a reward for … well, for what I don’t know.
What I do know is that right now it feels as if nothing means anything at all. Except for the shining sun, and that there might be days and days before nothing comes and takes both me and my left foot away.
To BECOME old can certainly seem horrible at times.
To BE old is wonderful—even when you don’t consider the alternative.