The first old man I wanted to be was named Ray, a relative I met only once. Wearing a rakish smile and a driving cap he called his "Go to hell" hat, Ray let a 4-year-old me stick my head through the sunroof of his VW Beetle as we hurtled past Long Island cow pastures. At the house, he rolled me around in his wheelchair, a traveling throne. Old men! Emperors of the universe!
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Later I wanted to be my great-uncle Jimmy, who whipped me at checkers, and my 70-something friend Bayard, who taught me to split wood. I saw in old men a way of being that seemed unique to them. They took their time, prized comfort, moved through days as if each were everlasting. I wanted, like them, to read books in a chair shaped to my body, to tilt my Go to Hell hat just so. Had life offered the choice, I'd have skipped pimples and shuffled straight to slippers.
Then came an accident of love. Sheri played volleyball, sipped whiskey, and worked at the same newspaper I did. I suspected she was older. She was — by 17 years. But I hoped our ages (hers 43, mine 26) wouldn't matter. What I valued was how comfortable we felt — the fact of us more than the age of us. Nearly 20 years ago, we married.
But our generational difference did matter. I stopped eating 20-something-guy food. I listened to less Van Halen, more Nina Simone. Marriage became a time machine, speeding me ahead of schedule toward my childhood wish.
If each age has its own personality, mine was split. My driver's license said I was 33, but the AARP card I got through Sheri's membership qualified me for motel discounts. I listened to my sister-in-law and wife reminisce about a long-ago night of flirting with boys — Johnny Mathis on the turn table — when I was still in diapers. Now, at 46, I'm immersed in the details of Sheri's retirement. "How old are you?" has become for me an existential, impossible-to-answer question.
I suspect this disorientation afflicts many boomers like Sheri, who have lived with the idea of their youth so long that old age — whatever that is — seems as strange and gnarly as a new spray of blue veins down your leg. Getting older, as Sheri has taught me, isn't all pipe smoke and quiet dawns. Two years ago she wrenched her shoulder. The tendon has yet to heal, and she can no longer swim laps, once one of her great joys. The other day she forgot how to make her iPod play in the car; frightened, she blamed age. While I'm thinking career, her mind's on mortality. She considers her mother's life span and predicts how much of her own remains. "I've got 20 years left," she tells me. "What do I do with them?"
I don't have an answer, only unease and hope. The unease is the same as Sheri's: that in the end, whenever it comes, we'll fail to bring to bloom what the poet Philip Larkin called "the million-petalled flower / of being here." The hope is that we will.