“You’re going to want to check the hours at the grocery store because I don’t think you can get in that early. Early hours are for seniors,” my husband says as I prepare for my new, not-so-normal weekly shopping trip. I wasn’t worried. My gray hair bought me a lot of leeway before COVID-19 struck. If they actually thought I was too young, I would only have to wait 15 minutes for “general population” hours to begin. I had ample reason to believe it wouldn’t be a problem. Since letting my hair go gray, I’ve noticed people treat me differently. Some politely wave me through intersections while I’m driving – as if I’m a little old lady who can’t navigate traffic. Others automatically give me the senior discount. And, when I ride the subway, I’m now usually offered a seat.

But when I get to the store, I realize I won’t have to rely on the Gray Hair Card. I had turned 60 in November. With 1959 on my driver’s license, I am officially “high risk” and can shop with the early bird group. I stand in front of the sign that announces the store hours and age groups, and freeze.

Wasn’t it just a few years ago I was a young mother with two kids in tow? Weren’t we hanging out at playgrounds, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and watching Barney videos? And surely, it can’t have been that long ago that I had a high school son and a college-aged daughter with their endless stream of friends coming and going through the house. I look down at my grocery list. Sadly, no teenage-friendly snacks are listed; only low-carb, high-fiber essentials.

In the weeks since COVID, I’ve been in countless Zoom sessions (now a verb), as friends, family and volunteer organizations try to stay connected. The face staring back at me from the monitor tells me I am every bit 60. The spirit behind that 60-year-old mask is no older than 45 … so how can I possibly be “high risk?”

Admittedly, I fight aging.

And maybe I’m just a touch proud of how I try to control my risk factors. I stay active, eat healthy, limit my alcohol, and meditate. I was about to begin a new job as a barista for a trendy coffee shop the week the coronavirus drove us all indoors and apart. My dad is alive at 94 and my mom lived until she was 90. The numbers are on my side. I wear my gray hair proudly and don’t usually spend time focused on my wrinkles, turkey neck other parts of my body that are giving in to gravity. Like Eric Idle and John Cleese in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, my mantra jokingly had become “I’m not dead yet.”

And suddenly it’s not a joke.

Once again I am reminded of the fact that control is a myth. Life involves risk; and now with a global pandemic in our midst, daily existence has grabbed people by the lapels and is shaking them hard. People are sick and dying. Retirement accounts are evaporating. Jobs are ceasing to exist. Reminders of this risk are everywhere: on TV, on social media, and in the way we’re living our lives.

As a young mother, I tried to control risk factors. My kids were belted in, buckled up, helmeted, vaccinated, given proper nutrition and regular bedtimes. My teenagers knew I was hawk-eyed about alcohol and drug use. Every time they went out, I was like a reporter asking the key questions of who, what, when, where and why. Risk was to be minimized, if not controlled all together. My responses as a younger mother were fear-based. My response to the COVID crisis is grounded more in sadness than fear.

Now, as I use my sanitized wipes to clean the check-out keypad, I become aware of the “be-kind-to-the-old-lady” smile the checkout girl is giving me. I pause, and instead of my usual feisty internal response, I am filled with gratitude.

These days, I am running a bit more again. My heart pounds and my lungs heave, but they work. I am grateful for that health. I am cooking a lot more again because my eldest and her boyfriend have moved back in with us. I am grateful for the food I’m purchasing and that my adult children are safe. Most of all, I am grateful for the full life I have led. The love – and the loss – are a warm quilt I can wrap around me on nights when the fear comes knocking at the door.

Sixty is a big number. It means you get to go into supermarkets early and reminds you that the clock truly is ticking – someday is now! But 60 also provides a view from the top of life’s hill and offers perspective. While I am not undermining authority or making light of being designated in the “high risk” category, I gently remind myself that the act of living a full life is indeed, high risk.

Now I smile back at the young lady at the checkout, I tell her to stay safe and on my way to my car, I say a silent prayer that she may live to be 60, gray and grateful.

Mary Ellen Kelly is a resident of Beverly.

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