From time to time, I return to the high school where I spent most of my adult life, filling in as a substitute teacher for friends of mine. Having taught freshmen during the last year before my retirement, there is still one cluster of students who know me as a “regular teacher” and they are all now seniors, getting ready to graduate. For the past week, I have been substituting for a teacher who has mostly seniors, and I’ve been re-united with many of my former kids.
It was during some slack time in one of those classes that Luisa, one of my former freshmen, asked if she could do a brief interview with me for an assignment she was trying to complete for her psychology class. She had three questions that she had to ask of someone younger than her, someone older than her, and someone who was of “post-retirement” age. She laughed when I said, “That’s a nice way of saying that I’m the old person of the group.”
It would have been much easier if I had been inclined to give glib, easy answers, but each question hit me as being tough and thought provoking.
Question 1. “What has been the best age in your experience?”
I immediately assumed she was talking about “best decade” as opposed to “best year” and I found myself torn. I had six decades to choose from. I discounted the first two, eventually narrowing it down to either my 20’s or my 60’s (although I’m only two years in). These were/are decades where I have felt the greatest personal freedom, especially freedom from responsibility. I have always taken my responsibilities as a husband, a dad, and a teacher very seriously, but now, when I see a responsibility heading my way, I duck and hide and hope someone else will get stuck with it. I am both highly responsible and responsibility-averse at the same time.
After some thought, I settled on my 20’s. On the one hand, I had less money; on the other hand, I had many fewer aches and pains. I had the energy and enthusiasm of youth and was in the midst of finishing college and beginning a new career. Most especially, though, I remember those years as the long honeymoon of my now 40-year marriage. Married at 21 to a girl I had loved since high school, I’m sure those years are hazed with a golden glow of nostalgia, but for me they were a time of being young and free and in love. As we set up our first home together, a two-bedroom duplex, we worked at blending our different images of what “home” looked like and started to learn what it really meant to be partners. We learned how to have fights. Best of all, we learned how to make up. We could spend lazy hours together on a Sunday afternoon with nothing but each other’s company and feel utterly fulfilled. I remember watching her stand at the bedroom mirror, brushing her long, black hair in the evening, marveling at her beauty and at my good luck in having found her.
That decade was capped off with the birth of our son Nico, and the exciting, demanding, and immensely fulfilling beginnings of parenthood.
Question 2. “What age do you consider “old”?”
Ouch. The face I see in the mirror every morning says that I am old. Scrolling back to 1953 on my laptop whenever I have to record my birth date for some government form is certainly an eye-opener as decade after decade slips past. The constant aches, the more frequent doctor visits, the amount of time needed to maintain a body that once seemed to take care of itself all scream “OLD, OLD, OLD!”
But given all of that, I don’t FEEL old. And I am around OLD a lot. My mother resides in a board-and-care home, a residential facility that can house no more than 6 residents, all of whom need 24-hour attention. The oldest resident there is now 99 years old and until just recently was as spry and sharp as could be. He is my hero. My mother clocks in at 92 years of age, placed in this home due to her growing dementia and lack of mobility. I visit nearly every day, at least for a while, and doing so for the last three years is beginning to age me a bit, I think. Every day, I’m reminded of what the ravages of age can do no matter how hard one might try to fend them off.
It was these many visits that informed my answer to Luisa about what I considered to be old. I told her I could not pinpoint a particular year. For me, it seems that there will come a time when I start to feel that my body is beginning to rob me of my ability to be active in the way that I want to be, the way I am now.
I’m no Stephen Hawking. I don’t expect to be heroic as age or disease begins to chip away at my well-being. I expect to be pretty pissed off about it and to rage a little against the dying of the light. I am just happy that I am not there yet.
Question 3. What is the most important life lesson that you have learned?
“Is Your Love Enough? Or Can You Love Some More?”
Singer-Songwriter Michael Franti reels off these and other rhetorical questions in his song, “Is Love Enough?” I hate rhetorical questions. There are enough things in my life for which I have no answers. I don’t need more.
Man, where do I even start? I said it poorly to Luisa at the time, but essentially what I wanted to say was that I now knew that I needed to learn to love—more freely, more completely, more vulnerably, more fearlessly. I was raised in a family where we never actually talked about love, didn’t even use the word with each other that I can remember. I don’t think it was until my daughter moved away from home that I got trained in ending a conversation with the words “I love you” because she kind of insisted on it. In my own relationship I have always struggled to be demonstrative and, instead, have hoped that actions would show the love I felt. It is not enough; I know that now.
I believe now, that meaningful human connection may be the most critical element of happiness, and yet these relationships seem fraught with land mines to me. Families are complicated; friendships are complicated; I mean, people are just fucking complicated.
But, I do love the comfort of my family, where affection comes almost unconditionally and instantaneously. Outside of my family, I think I may have only said the words “I love you” to three people in all of these years, and in every case I feared I had said something I shouldn’t, revealed too much, invited an unwelcome response. Why am I so afraid? Is it really that hard to love? To claim a feeling that I know that I have?
On my final day as a teacher, the staff gathered together, as we do every year to honor retirees. The principal said nice things and gave out gifts and awards. Three of us were retiring that year and I ended up going last. The first two wept as they addressed our colleagues and there were tears all around. I didn’t get it. I mean I did, but I didn’t. And I said so. I told them that I could not be happier at this moment, and I hoped that they were all happy for me. I had had a wonderful career and was getting the chance to retire and experience a whole new life. I told them that especially in my final years I had come to love, yes love, the students that I taught. The kids had given me so much love and affection and support that it was easy to forgive their occasional transgressions and bursts of immaturity.
As the ceremony ended, I could hear the skeptics. “Love my kids? I’m not there yet!” I overheard one teacher say. I hope she gets “there.”
Three supposedly simple questions. Just another assignment for a kid (a really great kid), one more occasion for my brain to ache, for my mind to explode.