Jerome Shea       February 28, 2012      Weekend Wonk

“Inside every old person is a young person wondering what the hell happened.”

This 3rd of March Mrs. Shea’s little boy will notch his seventieth year on God’s green Earth. I hesitated to write a wonk about it. Having already written at least three wonks on aging, I didn’t want to risk becoming a garrulous old bore on the subject. But I was working on a wonk that wasn’t working out, and reaching the Biblical allotment is just too tempting a subject. So I’m going to risk it. Lucky you.

The truth is that I do think about growing old, being old, much of the time. I suspect that most people my age do. Not that we are depressed about it, necessarily. It’s more of a detached fascination, a bemusement nicely pointed up in that quotation from a popular poster, cited above. “So it’s come to this, has it?” you murmur to yourself. “How? When? Why?” And there’s no point in denying it, no point in denying Medicare, trifocals, grandkids.

If you whine about aging, people admonish you to consider the alternative. Which is fair, and tonic. I’m glad to still be here, though I refuse to be absurdly upbeat about it all the time. Mark Twain said, “If you can’t get to seventy by a comfortable road, don’t go.” All things considered, my road has, thank goodness, been pretty comfortable. A few potholes but nothing serious, nothing to break an axle, and it got better, smoother as the years rolled by. I have lived more years than my parents did. My mother died at 52, my father at 59. In Diana’s family, I am the oldest of the kids and kids-in-law. Like so many my age, I seldom sleep all through the night, but seldom do I lie there in the small hours and terrify myself with thoughts of mortality. I expect another dozen years or so. But then (he said cheerily) I could be hit by a bus tomorrow. No profit in thinking about it. (Pop’s preferred exit was to be shot in his twilight years by an irate husband. Didn’t happen to him; probably won’t happen to me.)

So when did old age hit? You don’t wake up one morning and say, “Son of a gun, I’m old now!” No, it’s only later, only looking back. I think retirement, time on your hands, has a lot to do with it. “Keep busy” is still the best advice. I compounded things by giving up marathons at the same time I retired. I don’t really regret either decision, but I am deeply grateful for the two courses that I teach and the wonks that I write. And there’s nothing but myself to stop me from racking up twenty or so miles a week, even if I am slow as molasses.

So what’s to be gained? Well, for both good and ill, time’s arrow flies only forward. I am the sum of all these 70 years. I look out at my class and I think, “I’ve already been 20—in fact, I was 20 with a vengeance long before you were born—but none of you have been 60.” Thus do we lord it over the young’uns. I honestly think I am finally gaining a modicum of wisdom. I can feel it. Really. “Age is a terrible price to pay for maturity,” but what choice do we have? And to whatever extent I don’t look or act quite as old as I am, I am happy to accept appropriate compliments. When someone asks me how I’m doing, I often snitch one of Pop’s comebacks: “Remarkable for a man my age!” You can’t pull that off at 50.

The arrow flies only forward, so forward one should look, I suppose. That, too, is standard advice for oldsters. But sometimes what trips me up—even more than dark mortality slithering up in the small hours—is a memory come out of nowhere. It might be a cross-country summer trip, the Sheas in their tiny Honda (a rest stop in Illinois, maybe; Dan is tying his sneaker, I am sitting on the picnic bench); it might be that exact moment when I knew that Diana was my salvation in this life; it might be just waking up on a morning long ago and exulting in my body, feeling the sun upon it, feeling coffee warm in my gut. I think of my life in decades and every decade is like a city where I once lived but can live no more. And when these memories ambush me, I see myself at the city limits. I am confronted by a plump, red-cheeked policeman, an image from one of my childhood picture books. I am wheedling. He is smiling but implacable.

“I just want to get back in to see my, uh, my old, uh, high school!”

“We’ll send you a picture, Jerome.”

“But you don’t understand, I….”

“No, Jerome. You can’t come in. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.”


The Sons of Ditches are throwing me a party, bless their hearts. And bygod I’m going to make the most of it.

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