Today I turn 52. I have friends who have died at this age, and some younger. I think about 52 and what it means in terms of age and time. I’m fortunate. The Anasazi lived until their teeth wore out around the age of 35. At the beginning of the twentieth century, life expectancy in the United States was 47. Today, Somalians, if they’re lucky, can expect to live until they are 49.
If I was Somali in Somalia, my people would celebrate my long and illustrious life. In the U.S., I feel lucky to be so old.
Age treats me well. I can deal with joint stiffness. I get around the house, at least, even in the middle of the night when sleep doesn’t come so easily. I can even stand from kneeling like a serf after the lord’s left the courtyard.I don’t wake up singing anymore, but a shower and a cup of coffee clears the morning fuzz out of my head.
Compatriots my age bitch and moan. “Goddamn, I’m old,” they say. They are youngsters compared to their dirt-hoeing ancestors, who really were old at 50. I can just imagine that when my mates are 90, they will say, “Goddamn, I’m old.” The difference between them and me is that I will say it for the first time when I’m 90. They will have been complaining about age for four full decades. The routine of that makes me dizzy and I feel sorry for them.
My complaint is about time. Psychologists and doctors have done studieson the ways that people perceive time. Time itself doesn’t speed up or slow down. At least I think it doesn’t. But when I was young, everything moved so slowly. The wait in the doctor’s office or car repair shop lumbered past like a geological epoch. How long was the time between lunch and then end of the school day? How long did I have to wait after school for my mom to take me to Cub Scout baseball?
I perceive time as moving faster and faster as the days past. I am not alone nor is my story new to me. Most older people feel time moving more quickly, I think. When we are young, time is heavy. It feels like the weight of the ocean. As we get older, time loses mass. It shrivels up, gets smaller and more easily stepped over. It transforms into something light, ethereal, almost nonexistent. We wake up one morning and realize we have lost a week, a month, or even a year. Our children have grown and we sag at the edges. We dream of the weight of the ocean. We want it to crush us so that we’ll feel young again.
How fast or slow time really does move is irrelevant. I can’t catch it or hold onto it and that bothers me. Time flees at my approach. Time reminds me of squirrels. Squirrels in the park always seem to be sitting close at hand. You think all you only need to take a step and you can snatch one up in your fingers. But you can never catch a squirrel. You take that step and they disappear up the tree. They skitter across the lawn and vanish in the leaves. That’s best, really. What do you do with a squirrel if you actually catch one? Some people eat them. Since I think animals are people too, it would be unseemly and cannibalistic for me to eat a squirrel I happened to catch with my bare hands in the park.
More to the point, this is the way my life has run recently: It’s Sunday night. I’m taking out the trash. I walk back past the cars and check the bike I have locked up to the front deck. I dump the refuse at the curb out of the way of the hawthorn tree so the men don’t get in the thorns. I go back into the house and sit down to watch some television with Joan. I get up and go to bed, looking forward to another week. Suddenly, it’s Sunday again. I’m taking out the trash. I find myself caught in my tracks, as if my feet have sunk into tar. Where has the week gone? I can count the innumerable things I accomplished and did. But no tally or accounting can make that time return or slow down the week ahead.
I cannot add anything new here. Writers, poets, and artists have complained about time slipping away for as many years as there have been artists, poets, and writers. Yet, when I look back twenty years and then think of the next twenty in the same way, well, I feel loss. I see pictures of my kids and get weepy. My god, I think, that was so long ago it and seems like just yesterday. The pictures remind me of my foibles and faults, all the times I was impatient as a father and intolerant as a human being. I relive being scared for my kids’ futures and for their health. I see now what I could not see then: So little of all the discipline and moral training matter. Did all the worry bring anything but heartache? If so, did it let them live for even a few hours longer? Why wasn’t I more gentle?
Time goes away like gas in the tank. The faster and more vigorously you drive, the quicker the tank empties. You can conserve, go slow, be cautious, but the tank empties all the same. You got a few more miles but no more time. Empty is empty. There’s no getting that fuel back.
On the other hand, I am not one to think, Gee, I wish I could do it over. There’s nothing worse than someone waxing nostalgically about the good old days. The good old days were rotten. I was afraid all the time. I lived in poverty. My work wore me out, gave me big, lumpy shoulders and knotty hands.
And here I stand, 52, wearing time like an old coat. You can see the cut of it, when it was made, and what happened to it over the years. You can even mend it if it’s torn a little here or there. You can darn a hole. But you can’t take up the sag or change that coat into something other than what it is after all it’s been through. You can only take it off and throw it away. When you take time off and throw it away, you die. That’s it. You don’t get any older than dead.
And that’s the good thing. I’m lucky to be old. If I make it past today, I’ll be that much older. Good for me.