A 60th birthday is a major milestone. To honor the occasion, I quit dying my hair.
My first gray hair appeared in high school, and I took it in stride. At 30, I convinced myself my salt and pepper coif looked distinguished.
By 40, my hair was almost completely white. I told myself my mature appearance enhanced my courtroom credibility. But by the end of that year, my hair-color rationalizations imploded.
One of my employees invited me to a Christmas party. I wore a red blazer with a festive red, white, black and green block-print scarf, and my hostess’ shy little granddaughter seemed fixated. Clinging to grandma’s side, she stared at me from across the room.
Eventually, she detached herself and crept over to the sofa where I was seated. She put a hand on my knee, looked up worshipfully at my bright scarf, white hair and granny glasses and said, “You look just like Mrs. Santa Claus.”
I had enough self-control to join the laughter, but I wasn’t ready to look like Mrs. Santa Claus. So I returned my hair to its natural color and kept it so for two decades.
I decided long in advance to quit at 60, and when the big day rolled around, the dye jobs stopped.
I’d also planned to retire at 60, but when you love your work, it’s tough to let go.
Some sports heroes stay in the game despite deteriorating skills until they become objects of pity and age-related jokes. Some professionals make the same mistake.
Quite a few studies suggest that doctors’ skills decline after 60. For many, that’s probably true. Brainpower declines with age just like athletic prowess.
One of my medical school mentors was a family practitioner then in his 60s whose specialty required its members to undergo regular competency examinations. He seemed uncharacteristically downcast one day, and I asked why.
“Every time I take that test,” the doctor said ruefully, “my score goes down some more.”
That doctor certainly wasn’t incompetent but knew his deteriorating test performance signaled that the end of his career was closer than he wished to think.
I’ve seen a few practitioners in my own field overstay their time. Their opinions became a little shaky, sometimes more than a little. Younger colleagues started to whisper, roll their eyes and mutter about unreliable trial testimony.
Contributing to an unjust courtroom verdict would be a bad way to end a career, but I wasn’t ready to quit at 60. I decided to give myself five more years.
Largely because of my parents’ ill health, I stepped down from full-time practice at 63, but I worked part time until I turned 65. I haven’t picked up a scalpel since, and I miss it.
On Oct. 28, I passed another milestone – my 70th birthday. I’m ready to make another change, and it’s this column. Fourteen years is long enough.
Interesting topics seem to be harder to find, and I don’t want the effort to become an obligation rather than a pleasure. I don’t want to keep going until quality and readership decline and my editor suggests it’s time for me to quit.
I don’t know what comes next. Maybe I’ll do a few more autopsies if the circumstances are right and the cases simple. Maybe, if events motivate me, I’ll write a few more columns. Maybe something entirely different will beckon.
I’m back in Durango where I want to be, and whatever life brings is bound to be good.
Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003 to 2012. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.