I am getting to be old.
I feel it especially in my knees and my lower back. I play basketball for an hour and I spend the next week bent slightly askew at my standing desk, as if perpetually preparing to bow politely to anyone who stops by my office to ask a question. Like, “Why are you standing like that?” Occasionally, I think about sitting, but the last time I did that my knees sounded like the attic floorboard of a condemned house and I’m worried I might not be able to get vertical again once I’m down.
The fact that I have a standing desk is itself a sign of my disappearing youth. After I moved in and spent a few weeks curling my spine to catch a glimpse of the dual monitors glowing up from a great distance below, I put in an ergonomics request. That set in motion an elaborate process to make the office slightly better adapted to this aging body. An evaluator came and took measurements and photos, then had me sit in different chairs. The one she picked out for me is a “YM,” which she claimed was named after Yao Ming. My desk was raised two inches off the ground, which serves the double purpose of improving my posture and making me feel more important than everyone I work with. In addition to the standing desk apparatus, I received a new mouse, mousepad, keyboard, and headset, all designed to keep my failing body from giving out, at least while I’m at the office. About all that is missing are a pair of bifocals and a bottle of Ibuprofen.
But it’s not just physically that I notice myself getting older. I feel it socially, too. For the past two years, my position has been to supervise a small group of attorneys. These are the newest members of our office, which often means they are also the youngest members of our office. Already in the two years of doing this job, I have started to feel a widening age gap. My mid- to late-nineties cultural references largely sail over their non-greying heads. It’s very hard to score a laugh about being unable to use the web since you’re on the phone if the audience has never heard the thrilling, shrill sound of internet dial-up.
“How long ago were you in high school?” you ask me one day out of the blue. I have to think for a minute—the unfairness of an aging brain having to subtract from bigger numbers every year!—before I tell you it has been twenty-one years. Your eyes grow wide in amazement, and I can see your young trying its best to imagine a number that large. Finally, you remark, “I bet you were derpy in high school.” I don’t know what I was expecting but that wasn’t it, and I immediately start laughing. Relieved you haven’t wounded my pride, you laugh, too. I was pretty derpy back then, I think to myself. Pretty derpy now, too, if I’m being honest.
Your comment reminds me of a time even before I was in high school, if you can imagine that large of a number. I was a little older than you are now. My dad bought some plaid shorts that he thought were pretty cool. My siblings and I had a different opinion, and we were not shy in sharing it. I would come upstairs in my baseball uniform, excited for a big game, and I would see his bright plaid shorts and Big Dog t-shirt greeting me near the door. I would let out a big, exasperated groan. “Dad, those shorts are so embarrassing!” (If the word existed at the time, I might have even said he looked derpy.) My dad would just smile and tell me to load my gear into the Suburban. At the game, I would scan my teammates’ faces to see if any of them were looking over at my dad, ready to use his poor sense of fashion against me.
If he had lived long enough to be a grandpa, I wonder what kind of clothes he might wear while taking you somewhere other kids might be found. Would you have inherited my embarrassment? Maybe. Or maybe grandparents get a special pass to be derpy that is not available to parents.
If she was still alive, your mom would turn forty-five this November. She was never derpy, although I have seen some pictures from middle school that certainly fit that description. Despite being five years older than me, almost everyone who did not know that fact assumed I was older. Probably in part because of our relative derpiness, but also because she seemed so young. You could have counted all the grey hairs ever to appear on her head on one hand. When she answered the phone in her high voice, callers often assumed they were speaking with a high school intern. Her big smile and playfulness also added to her youthful appearance.
I recall one year she showed me pictures someone had sent her from a high school reunion that we were unable to attend. I could not believe how much younger she seemed than many of her fellow alumni whom I had never met. Your mom was not at all a vain person, but I could tell she enjoyed the disbelief that was apparent on my face as I looked at all the laugh-lined and bald-spotted partygoers in the pictures. I couldn’t believe my luck.
But her youthfulness is part of why I could never really bring myself to believe that her initial cancer diagnosis might be fatal, or that recurrence was anything more than a remote possibility. Her youthfulness made me feel young, too, and I just figured we had lots of time to grow old together.
We made plans like we had lots of time left. We bought a house on a thirty year mortgage. We talked about traveling—to classical ruins in Greece and Italy, on an African safari, back to visit our friends in Korea, on a cruise around the Nordic countries—but we planned to pay off some debt and let you get a little older before we spent the money. We wanted to see and do things together as we got more settled. What was the rush?
I wish we had just gone and done some of it. I wish I could have taken her all over the world to every corner she ever wanted to see. I don’t regret much about our time together, or worry about things said or unsaid, but I do wish I had taken her somewhere exotic when I had the chance.
Since your mom died, I’ve heard people complain a few times about aging. They take a minute to get out of a deep chair and loudly proclaim, “I’m getting old!” Or, I walk through a pharmacy and I see all the anti-aging creams and lotions with marketing designed to make us think that aging is some great evil to be avoided at all costs.
I understand how aging is hard, and it doesn’t really get any easier over time as you lose the ability to do some of the things you most enjoy. I remember the look on your great-grandpa’s face when he would talk about fishing but knew he would never have the chance to get back out on a mountain stream to cast a line again. It’s not easy to lose parts of ourselves that we love.
Still, there’s a fine line between wanting to look and feel younger or to be able to do all the things you love, and simply not wanting to grow old. Many people, like your mom, never get to experience the joys of growing old.
That’s what I’m trying to remember, anyway. That when I get on the exercise bike or head off to the gym to play basketball, I’m not working out so I can avoid getting old, but so that I can be old (or at least improve my chances). That I won’t always be able to run around getting sweaty with a bunch of other guys who, like me, are past their prime, trying to put a little ball through a hoop. That it is pretty damn great to have a little being who cares enough about what I do to be embarrassed when I end up looking a little derpy doing it.
I’m trying to remember how amazing it is for me to be on this planet, a little older every day I’m here.
I am getting to keep living.
I am getting to be old.
What a gift.
I somehow missed this post. It was a great way to start my day. Love the part about your dad and the plaid shorts. I can just see him with that little grin on his face. I miss him. Also, thanks for teaching me what “derpy” means. Thank you for your wonderful way of words, Caleb. Love you
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