Like most people, I fear getting old; that no matter how many "special" creams I use, and despite regular exercise and a healthy diet, the day will come when I will look in the mirror and not recognise myself. I hate the idea of being a burden on someone and not being able to take care of myself - and worse, losing my teeth! I fear that somehow my life will be reduced to boring routines and ticking the "senior citizen" box on official forms.
But then I met little old Mr Hamad. "So, how are you?" I asked. With a big smile (missing a few teeth) and a twinkle in his eyes, he replied: "Al hamd Allah, I am wonderful." Mr Hamad suffers from arthritis, so he can barely use his hands and relies on a very stylish cane for moving around. He got it as a gift from a friend. It has a golden carved head of a falcon on its top, and fancy calligraphy. He is proud of his cane, and likes to tell the story behind it.
"When we were in our twenties," he told me, "my friend and I decided to climb a mountain in the northern emirates." The two young men struggled along the loose, rocky side of one of the mountains, near a mosque that served as a landmark. Five hours into the climb, they found an old house made of rocks that had probably belonged to one of the area's mountain tribes. The house was falling apart, but even as it was dying away there was something dignified about it, Mr Hamad told me.
The two friends ate and relaxed inside the small house with its low, crumbling ceiling. They shared secrets, troubles, and their dreams for the future. They carved their names on one of the stones, and dated it, as many others had before them. "I don't think I have ever been that honest in my life again," Mr Hamad says. The two friends returned home the next morning, but not before they made a pact to come back to the same spot when they were 50 years old, even if they had lost touch in the meantime. They decided on a particular day in spring, in the year when both would turn 50.
Back home, as they pursued their education and their work, got married and had children, slowly they went their separate ways. Decades later, as Mr Hamad celebrated his 50th birthday, he remembered the pact - and it turned out his friend had too. They reconnected (this time by mobile phone), and met at the same spot. Mr Hamad told me: "Nothing much had changed with the mountain, and even the mosque seemed to have been maintained. But when I saw my friend, and he saw me, we barely recognised each other. We had both gained weight, we were bald, we had dyed our beards to look younger. But then, in a way, we hadn't changed at all. It was as if we had never lost touch over the years."
They didn't have it in them to climb again, but they did go up a few steps and found a level area where they relaxed, and exchanged gifts. They gave each other a cane, and laughed and cried about the good and bad times they had gone through in their lives. It turned out neither of them had followed their dreams, but had ended up doing what was "expected" of them. Mr Hamad says: "We kept saying, there is time, next year I will do this or that, but time just flew and I never did what I really wanted." However, inspired by the reunion with his old friend, at the age of 50 he started to paint, and he even took up singing (though out of tune). And he and his friend visited the same spot regularly, climbing a few more steps each time until they reached the old house in the mountain.
"It was still there, falling apart, but still standing, and it was an inspiration to us; an example that even when we are falling apart, we should do it with poise and dignity," Mr Hamad told me. They carved their names near their old carvings, with the new date. "Getting old makes you appreciate the things you did when you were young, and it also pushes you not to keep on postponing your life, and to do things you were scared to do in your youth," Mr Hamad says.
What does he love most about being old? It is that he has earned the right just to be himself. "An antique object increases in value as it ages, so why should a human life's value decrease as it ages?" he says with a smile. Now 75, Mr Hamad is proud to be "an antique", and is always smiling. I know that as we grow older, the stories we tell of our past are embellished, but I still love listening to this one. Despite losing his teeth and struggling with illness, Mr Hamad remains young at heart. And since he still looks 50, staying young at heart seems to be the ultimate facelift.