I was asked to speak at my 45th class reunion at Agnes Scott. Here’s what “carpe diem” means when we’re in our 60s.
PETER PAN GROWS UP
REFLECTIONS ON MORTALITY FOR THE CLASS OF ’67 AT AGE 67
By Grace Ellis
When we looked like the graduation pictures on our name cards, we did not believe that any of us would ever die. Psychologists tell us that the adolescent brain simply cannot process the concept of its own mortality. That is why, as teenagers and young adults, we could be so foolish—or so courageous—in the risks we took. After all, we were Peter Pan. We would never grow up, let alone grow old. We were immortal.
My sisters, that was Never-Never Land. We graduated forty-five years ago. And while some of us may live to be fully functional at age one hundred and twelve, most of us do not have another forty-five years to go. Not a one of us has lived through the years since college unscarred by loss and grief. Some of our dreams have not come true. Each of us has regrets about things we have done or failed to do. People we have loved have stopped speaking to us—or perhaps we wish they would. We have heard frightening diagnoses from the lips of doctors. We have been care-givers for our parents—and partners, siblings, children, or friends—as they walked through the valley of the shadow of death. For some of us, the losses are very recent, and the wounds are still raw. We—and those we love—are all mortal. We get that now.
How then shall we live? Having been hurt in the past, how do we face the future? One of my temptations is to pull back from life. If my time and strength are limited, maybe I shouldn’t tackle a big project like a novel. Perhaps a haiku will be enough. And how can I form new friendships and deepen the old ones, knowing of the losses to come? Anticipatory grief can blight our lives, leading us to put up walls, put on the brakes, shut down.
What I wish for myself and for all of us is something different. Yes, our hearts will be broken again. And the sorrow will be painful. Grieving is not a project we can complete and check off on a to-do list, like a term paper. It does not end. But grief can transform us, opening us up to empathy, to gentleness, to intimacy, to our own humanity, and, paradoxically, to joy in the celebration of those we have loved and of the lives we have lived.
Perhaps, by acknowledging that life ends and by facing our fears, we will unleash in ourselves a renewed spirit of courage, commitment—even recklessness. Maybe we best honor those we have loved by living the rest of our lives to the fullest. KC wanted me to end by quoting Wordsworth, but I find myself thinking instead of lines from J.M. Barrie and our own Robert Frost, as well as a Civil War Admiral. I imagine the sisterhood of Peter Pan in the years to come, navigating that road less traveled by—full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes—straight on till morning.