On Growing Old
On Growing Old
Well, here I am, just a couple of years away from eighty.
Who'da thought? The brain surgeon at the concert told me that when we make seventy the actuaries expect us to go at least to eighty-seven. Back in my teens I wondered if I would live to see the new millennia... only that word wasn't in my vocabulary back then, so I probably thought of 2000. Sixty-nine seemed to be such an ancient age. Of course, as I neared it, sixty-nine seemed not only doable but young. And now I am approaching a ninth decade. Who'da thought?
What I certainly never imagined as the years rolled by is what I have found to be the main problem with growing old.
I though it might be diminished capacity. Sure, I can no longer be a terror on the basketball court. Fact is, I don't even get on the basketball court. Which game was a forty-four year addiction, suddenly ended one Monday morning when I grabbed for the ball someone else was dribbling. I stole the ball and, in the process, lost most of a bicep. But I can live with that. Just don't sit to my right at a banquet: you'll get speared by my elbow.
And, yes, no way could I ever again go back to work, preach every Sunday, fix fluorescent ballasts, repair the sprinkler system, visit shut-ins with communion, teach thirteen year olds their confirmation lessons, counsel the troubled, and attend every meeting held in church environs. My energy level has gone the way of every overused AA battery, down, down, down.
When I was seventeen Ecclesiastes 12 (check it out at the bottom of the page) did not resonate. At seventy-seven it voices a familiar litany of old age's woes.
But that's all right. I had a good run, nearly fifty years. Most retirees don't match that. I can live with diminished capacity.
Nor do I fret overmuch with the death of contemporaries. The circle of friends grows smaller. And the pace of its contraction will only accelerate. My college class has ordained me its webmaster, which means mostly that I have the unhappy task of keeping them informed of the demise of classmates. Equally telling is my experience visiting churches of my past. I can usually be found at coffee hour rushing from one gray head to the next to see if they are old enough to remember what I remember. 99% of the time they don't. Which can be attributed in equal parts to (1) the Grim Reaper, (2) American mobility, and (3) societal secularity (whatever that means!). Sure, I miss Austin. I also miss Bob Walsh, a new friend from the aquatics center, now gone, just a year younger, always with a puzzle or a joke to try out on me.
Like the junior high (now a thirty something, about to be married in June) regretted when twin friends moved to Arizona, how badly he felt because good friends are hard to come by: Amen. But I can live with that and do it with equanimity.
Fifty years of savings and a schoolteacher wife with a pension have spared me the straitened circumstances which greet many retirees when they are handed their gold watch. Comfortable and commodious pretty much sum up our circumstances. Besides, Social Security, they inform us, is secure for another 30 years.
Not insults to the body, not the death of contemporaries, and not 401K's become 201K's keep me awake at night. Something else does.
The ever swifter passage of time does... keeps me awake at night, spooks me sometimes in the daylight hours, and occupies my reveries. It's seven years since Ed Stack helped me on with my own Mets warm-up jacket and handed me my own Louisville Slugger, May 2002. It's seventy years ago Dr. Cognetta found kernels of corn in my appendix and allowed as how that vegetable is fit only for pigs. It's seventeen years ago I cradled my twin grandsons just hours after their birth at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. Thirty-seven years ago I completed my first year at Grace Church, Valley Stream NY, and turned down an offer to candidate for a prestigious pulpit in the City, a decision over which I never, even for a moment, entertained second thoughts. Forty-seven years ago on a summer's night at Dyker Beach I doubled in the winning run and made a tumbling game-ending catch in left field to seal the church softball team's championship in the Bay Ridge Church League.
Sevens. I could do it with fives and eights and all the rest. I've been cursed/blessed with a vivid memory. Give me a time and a place where I have been and I can bore you to tears with reminiscence. In which lies some of the problem with growing older. Time telescopes. Mental images rise up clear and precise. Yesterday stands on the threshold of today. I race back and forth with troubling ease. Time seems insubstantial. The years resemble a handful of sand slipping through my fingers.
It could be worse, a lot worse. I've been there often enough with people who have come to the end of their skein, complaining to the pastor that God is waiting too long to take them. And I've been there when people have tired of waiting and taken matters into their own hands. I'll weep for them; but don't weep for me.
I confided these sentiments today to a friend, an older friend. He counseled me. He said that long ago he determined to follow the advice of Abraham Maslow, to make an effort each day at self-actualization... which sounded to me very much like John Wesley's doctrine of Christian perfection. No matter our circumstances, bed-ridden or basketball playing, we can make the most of what we have. Having so little time to do it only adds to the urgency.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow does not creep in this petty pace; for me it's a day of delight too soon done.