Thursday, July 11, 2013

Life's Turning Points, Personified.



















the author, age 21

A few nights ago at our place, we were finishing a nice dinner with a friend when conversation turned to the late 1960's show, Dark Shadows. I remarked that, since I was only about five years old when the show peaked in 1967, I was far too young and apprehensive to watch anything involving vampires, let alone vampires wafting through baroque interiors, languishing in extreme closeups, awash in emotional upheaval, and plotting lustful treachery. My friend, who is 58, threw his head back and said, a little impatiently, "Come on. You're older than me." 

It's happened. I'm old. 

I just turned 51. The teenager once known for his baby face has become his eternally aged Uncle Alfred: a silver-haired casualty of male pattern baldness, with a barrel torso and a brow folded inward by years of brooding and squinting in the sun. As a runner I stay relatively fit, but my first, profanity-laced moments of the day include the "Fred Sanford" shuffle. My feet can't leave the floor due to achilles and calf stiffness. I slide along, four inches at a time, until the creaking subsides. This usually takes a couple of minutes and then I can still bound down the stairs and trot with the dogs in the woods. I'm lucky. It could be worse.

My partner is 14 years younger than me, and this mixed blessing (swear to God, I still don't know how I scored so big) contributes significantly to my enhanced awareness of the fact that, having been born in 1962, I have passed the half-century mark. Unnerving things happen after 40, insidiously nibbling away at once youthful cells whose degenerate status remain shrewdly concealed until age 50. Time accelerates alarmingly. I meet up with friends whose shared need for bifocals requires us to tip our heads back to see one another for handshakes and hugs—a quintessentially doddering posture that I never thought I'd adopt, that I assumed would be forever reserved for situation comedy gags. Delusions of youthfulness are traded in for hopeful labels like "spry." New people in your life want a lot less of your body and more of your prosperity. Friendships slip away unnoticed.

Yesterday, I was thinking about a close high school friend in Virginia who grew up in a very conservative Christian family with extremely caring and gentle parents. They were shocked and extremely hurt when, in his mid-twenties, he came out accidentally in a gay pride parade on the local news. What a difficult time that was for my friend and his family. He's been with the same partner since that time, and I have been thinking lately of asking him how his parents evolved over the ensuing 20-plus years because he seems to have retained a very positive relationship with them. I want to know what compromises were struck, if they grew truly convinced that their love for him was bigger than dogma, if their conception of God was upended. He's a brilliant storyteller, so I'm sure he'd have plenty to tell me. He lingers in memory like so many old friends who are extremely important to me, and yet I realize that the last time I saw him was four years ago for a single evening, an obligatory reunion among several of us to pay tribute to youthful friendship and affection. But at least 20 years had passed since our last face-to-face encounter and 20 more are sure to pass (unless we either drop dead or do something about it).

I was married for 22 years and during that time my ex and I were preoccupied with three kids, two careers, a house, a dog and a cat. We worked hard cultivating a loving family. Before moving to austere and inherently competitive New England, we made friends easily through our children. Those alliances remain some of the most rewarding of my life, forged in the solidarity of tottering parenthood and celebrated with the debauchery of red wine, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets. I have never found successors to those relationships. These days, since my kids are all in their 20s,  I spend most of my time alone with my three dogs, especially in the summer when I work almost exclusively from home while my students enjoy a break. My partner lives in Boston during the week and comes home on weekends, something I look forward to every Friday and mourn a little on Sunday nights. I see friends once a week for a run in the city, and we have dinner afterwards. Most days I'm happy with this. But sometimes I realize how much is slipping away—how many faces and voices I no longer know—and my heart sinks a little.

Of course we all know this, but it's worth repeating: mediated communication instruments like Facebook mislead us with the borrowed lexicon of "friendship," when in reality they're more of a barrier to genuine interaction. We don't seek actual contact with people because social media proxies seem sufficient. Sufficient that is, until you realize that decades have passed since you've seen some of the most influential, beloved people from your "timeline." Eventually you reach the age when people you knew remotely 30 years ago unexpectedly disappear one way or another. Some die, and this is shocking because you still cannot imagine death, even when you're straddling the cusp of a half-century. You imagine what it will be like when someone you once knew intimately—perhaps someone you held in your arms, or to whom you revealed some profoundly transformative epiphany—is no more; you wonder what regret you'll feel when they leave without saying goodbye. This feels worse when you know you could have done something about it. 

Rather than wallow in temporal hopelessness, it's of course more productive to realize that there's time, but it's moving fast. So, consider this an open call to old friends, to life's turning points, personified: if you're out there, let's share a meal, a weekend, a long-delayed reunion while we can. It's that, or risk a half-century of regret.

5 comments:

John Hendrix said...

Great essay Robert.... thanks for sharing.

pmorrissey said...

7/21 - let's go for a run! Paul

KLynch said...

Love this, Robert. Thanks for writing. And I'm older than you :)

Robert Brinkerhoff said...

Thanks folks. Coming from three objects of sincere admiration, I appreciate it. See you Friday, Paul!

Iola said...

Fantastic!