My friends are falling apart. This one is having open-heart surgery. A couple have diabetes. Another is noticing vision deterioration; and all of us have some hearing loss. Hearing what? Yes, I’m fine; thanks for asking. And then there are those abrupt pauses in the conversation while we collectively try to remember a name we all know like the back of our whachucallit. We’re in phase three of the Sphinxian riddle that begins. “What walks on four legs in the morning?”
As we sit around the table discussing a mix of eternal verities and temporary fixes, my eyes are drawn to the others’ hands. I wonder if they, like me, have their father’s hands. I lose track of the conversation, and fix on the ear hair of the friend to my right. I’m distracted by regret that this moment, like all the rest, must pass; then find comfort in the notion that this isn’t our last day. No, this day isn’t it. But I could be wrong about that.
Deep down I knew this phase of life would descend on us, but I’m still emotionally resistant. Weekly, we gather to talk in the place we all met fifty-something years ago. It’s a way to disregard the clock. When, a few years past, some of us lost touch with the group, the infrequency of contact only underscored changes that happened when we weren’t looking. If we were to let it slide now, the inevitable wear and tear would be harder to swallow. Issues of infirmity, a smorgasbord of chronic illnesses and even mortality would rear their ugly heads. They’re too much out of our control as it is.
One of the group asked me how to slow the clock down. Surprisingly, I had an instant answer, “Do something boring.” He said, “Yeah, that would do it. But it’s price is too high.” I agree that we can’t spend any time being bored; there’s still too much to learn. And while some acquaintances might struggle to see the evidence, I’m still trying to become a better man.
OK, so this is the bewildering part of getting old. How many times have I seen video of old men sitting around a table to share food, dominos and well-worn jokes? I now know it doesn’t happen because they have nothing better to do. There isn’t anything better to do. It beats the bejesus out of watching mindless drivel on the T and V. There’s empowerment in sharing stories of our desiccating bodies making it through another week more-or-less unscathed.
I remember the way my Grandfathers greeted each other when some occasion brought them together; “Hello there, Young Man”, etc. Once the hellos were attended to, they would strain to find topics of commonality. Grampas Page and Dionne nevertheless shared a deep understanding of men who had raised families through a depression, and both prospered in a world that called for adherence to the golden rule. They were, however, from different cultures; my maternal grandfather sprang from the soil on which we stood. He never heard the term, WASP, because to be one was the same as being an Earthling in his world. Whereas my Father’s father came from the French-speaking part of Canada, moving to New England as a young adult looking for more opportunities for his three small children. His trace of French accent and Catholicism projected a part of his psyche perpetually on the outside looking in.
What did my father learn from his father? Strength in numbers. Dad joined the Lions Club, the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the state governor’s cabinet, the country club, the boat club, the Quality Inns board of directors, plus the Knights of Columbus and other Catholic this, that and the other. But, when his business declined, all that solidarity and connectedness seemed to evaporate. An auction at his failed place of business closed the door on his entrepreneurial dream.
For what it’s worth, none of us in my group of compadres is conspicuously wealthy, though we all seem to be comfortable in a way too much of the world would regard as rich. From a distance, we’re uniformly lucky: we’re still intellectually engaged, none of us is likely to commit suicide in a dark jail cell, or be shot while trying to escape. We’re not on the run to evade a government crackdown or under the thumb of a drug cartel. We’re unlikely to be conscripted in a last-ditch effort to defend our Country against invasion by some neighboring dictator. We’ve lived in a part of the world free of famine and pestilence. A sizable portion of the populace values art and music, and we have the leisure time and safety to choose to eat Italian or Vietnamese tonight. To be more succinct, we’re amazingly lucky to be together here and now on this beautiful planet.