Essay: Why I’m Not Afraid of Aging

Arts editor Hanna Houser talks about her Grandmother and why she’s not afraid to age.

At 52, Diana Stewart graduated college.

At 75, she fell in love again. 

At 80, she went white water rafting through the Grand Canyon. By 90, she plans to conclude her bucket list with a trip to Key West, Florida. 

Stewart is my grandmother — or “Noona” as I call her — and she’s the reason I’ve come to live life without an expiration date. 

To be 22 is to be told to “seize your youth,” as if the freedom of living will never come again. It’s being told college will be the “best four years” of one’s life, or that you’ll never again be afforded the luxury of careless mistakes. 

It’s a confusing age polluted by duplicitous expectations. If you’re not wildly untempered, you’re neglecting the age of liberation. Yet if you don’t actively plan for your future, you’re dangerously unfocused. 

It’s an age where some friends have five-year plans and others are taking random jobs for the hell of it.

While the early twenties are packaged as the pinnacle of life — peak attractiveness, peak independence, peak allurement — I’ve seen, through Noona, that life doesn’t stop at 25 and that fulfillment doesn’t have a timeline. 

Having married at 19, most of Stewart’s twenties were spent raising her two children — Michael and my mom, Teresa. At 35, her life changed completely when her husband Bob was diagnosed with retractile mesenteritis — a very rare tissue disease. 

Entering into her fifties with her husband in declining health, Stewart had to think of herself and her future for the first time. Soon enough, she was enrolled at the University of Washington — in classes alongside her son’s friends. 

Overcome by discomfort and nerves, she failed her first test in an entry-level film class. 

Having to relearn how to study and manage schoolwork, Stewart said her degree in international studies came with hours of commitment and a reward greater than a diploma — self-assurance.

“Years after I got my degree, I would wake up sometimes not believing I’d done it,” Stewart said. “I would wake up not believing it was real, but then I’d tell myself, ‘You did it, you earned it.’” 

From when she got married at 19 to when her husband died when she was 65, Stewart said she was “never, ever” alone. After his death, she embarked on a decade-long soul search, which she said ended in gaining her own independence — until she met her boyfriend Mike and embraced love once more at 75-years-old. 

“I didn’t need somebody constantly telling me I was beautiful or smart or anything like that,” Stewart said. “I wanted somebody who was fun. I had my self-confidence.”

Now, Stewart says she’s more free than ever. When explaining her decision to white water raft on her 80th birthday, she said it was for “the challenge.”

“When I turned 80 I thought, ‘This doesn’t have to be about getting old,” Stewart said. “I want to do something at 80 that is different from what people my age do. I wanted challenges and I wanted excitement and I wanted fun — and I’ve done it.”

Diana Stewart takes a selfie at the Grand Canyon. Courtesy of Hanna Houser

When asked if she feels old, Stewart had a swift answer.

“No,” she said. “It surprises me when I look in the mirror and see all those wrinkles.”

I reject the idea that the firsts of my twenties are also lasts, or that at a certain age, life becomes unmoldable. 

And that isn’t twenty-something naiveté or premature optimism. 

The later years of one’s life bring much worth celebrating — even if one opts out of white water rafting. As I reflect on my twenties thus far, I’m haunted by the word “potential.” The potential for success or failure. The potential for personal fulfillment. The potential for loss and triumph — all of it is left for me to achieve. 

But I find comfort in envisioning myself at 80, when I can look at life from a bird’s eye view instead of through a magnifying glass. When you can know that you’ve “done it.” 

Along with arthritis and weakening hearing comes wisdom of experience and an exhilaration toward the little things. But still, it’s never too late to find yourself anew — freedom of reinvention doesn’t stop at 25, or 52, or 75, or 80.

I’m not sure if I’ll be at the Grand Canyon when I’m 80, but I am sure that I’ll have lived embracing the pleasantries of getting old, thanks to Noona. 

Feature image by Daphne Kraushaar / The Phoenix

Hanna Houser

Hanna Houser