My wife was sick as a dog on Tuesday so I had to take my daughter to day care. As we drove towards her school I noticed my daughter was very quiet. Turning down the jazz playing on the radio I looked at her in the rearview and asked, “Is everything all right, honey?”
Looking very serious my daughter just shook her head. Was she angry at me? Discomfited by the break from her usual Mommy routine? Thinking about butterflies, potty training or the existence of a Supreme Being? There was no way to fathom what was going on in her little synapse forming brain.
As we headed down the road I tried engaging her in conversation and failed. I’ve been very busy lately and we haven’t had much daddy/daughter time. That kind of upsets me. Maybe it upsets her too. My daughter is two and a half. This sweet and innocent time will never come again. I don’t want to miss it. Reminding myself to be a good father, I made a mental reservation to take her to the playground later that afternoon. Natalie loves going down the slides.
I see something new in my daughter daily. Yesterday she showed me how she could open the back door, load laundry into the washing machine and kind of throw a ball. Every day she displays a little bit more reassurance, better motor control, mastery of new words – including a few she shouldn’t know – and a fierce independence. If I try and carry her up a flight of stairs she throws a fit, demanding to do it herself and counting each step as I hover behind her. Every day she evinces signs of an emerging consciousness and a ferocious intelligence. She can do most of the alphabet in sign language and is starting to read. She’ll probably end up smarter than my wife and I.
But I’ve also been noticing other changes. Lately my old dog Buster has been peeing on the kitchen floor at night. That’s because he’s afraid to go outside when it’s dark, a sign of encroaching blindness. My parents have both been afflicted with medical maladies requiring all sorts of medical intervention and I’m now sporting a bald spot on top of my head. What is happening to me? Just yesterday I was razzing my father about turning fifty and now I’m closing in on the half century mark. Everyone and everything around me is getting older. Number provides all distances.
There was a recent article in The Washington Post that said when you turn thirty-seven you are now older than 50% of the people in the world. By the time you’re fifty that ratio increases to two thirds. If you’ve been wondering why everyone is getting younger, it is because they are. When I went to see the new Star Wars movie I was bored. Movies and books often fail to surprise me because I’ve been alive long enough to figure out how they’ll end. Sometimes it seems there’s nothing new under the sun. In the quiet I realize my life is more than half over.
I looked at my daughter’s reflection and sighed. She’ll be a young woman when I’m an old man. Will I be around when she gets married and has children? Nothing in life is guaranteed. My parents won’t hold their great-grandkids and by then Buster will be nothing more than a memory. “Many great dears are taken away,” I silently whisper. “What will become of you and me?”
How I handle growing old will probably impact my daughter deeply. If I screw it up she’ll get hurt and end up financing some therapists’ summer home. Besides, what is the purpose of getting old? Why this inevitable decline? Why the losses and indignities; to watch as our bodies betray us and grow frail? “Everyday gets harder,” an 84-year-old man recently told me. “Old age is a shipwreck.”
A while back I stumbled across a sermon given by a Muslim imam. “The shape that we have,” he preached, “The complexion we have, the wrinkleless face that we have, every one of those things begins to disappear as time passes, have you noticed that? …. The truth is, it’s a reality, we are becoming old. And when we become old we start losing one by one the glamour and the glitterous things that we’ve had. We start losing these things. Because Allah is trying to tell you, ‘Have you prepared for something bigger?’ We gave you your days. We really did. We gave you so much. Now we want you to come to us.”
“Have you prepared for something bigger?” That imam’s words have stayed with me. Perhaps that is what old age is all about. Maybe old age is pruning of sorts, a stripping away of what’s not important. Maybe all the losses we shall face are just preparation to help us let go and focus on what is unchanging and true.
What is unchanging and true? I don’t know. But I’m beginning to think that life is all about the connections we create – the relationships we make with people great and small. We have been given so much. What did we do with it? Were we merciful? Were we kind? Did we love enough? Money and power will mean nothing at the last breath. The only thing that’ll count was how we treated one another. That keeps me awake at night. Perhaps it should. As I shift in my car seat I wonder if that’ll be the path to my salvation, the way I will teach Natalie about life.
When I got to the school I brought Natalie to the playground. As soon as she saw her schoolmates playing on the jungle gym she said, “Bye Daddy,” and took off without looking back. That burned a bit but I guess that’s the way of things.
Leaning on the fence I felt every inch of my forty-eight years. As I watched my daughter cavort on the playground the old words came rushing back.
Each minute bursts in the burning room,
The great globe reels in the solar fire,
Spinning the trivial and unique away.
(How all things flash! How all things flare!)
What am I now that I was then?
Nay memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.
Thinking of Natalie, I went back to my small day and continued to burn.