I was having a beer with a younger friend. A fellow walked by who I wanted to compliment for something. "Hey, good job!" My right hand went up to make a clenched fist salute, a power fist. But midway up, it sort of rolled into a thumb's up. It turned out to be a limp, nothing fist. My friend next to me rolled his eyes and said, "Quit acting so old."
I cringed and couldn't deny it. The intent of my extended arm was that of sleek, athletic John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics with his gloved fist raised on the medal stand. Instead, it was the flabby arm of an old guy with a rolled-over wrist.
Anyone who has made it into their second half-century knows the sensation of thinking, "Wow, I just looked like my dad there." Mannerisms, certain looks, ways of carrying ourselves appear that weren't there when we were young. Around that same time, our body starts complaining. A while back, I played five softball games in one day. That was a nice little workout 30 years ago. This time, when I got up the next morning my body ached in places I didn't know it could ache.
At 57, I have begun to peer into the Later Years. I am still involved in the career and parenting of my Middle Years. But I can begin to see beyond them. AARP has tried to sign me up since I was 50, but I only recently began to look at older folks and sense what their life is.
It reminds me of a time in my 20s. For a few years there, I could still understand teenagers. I knew what it felt like to be a teenager, at the same time I began to know the world of adults. It felt like I was straddling two different worlds. There are things young people don't yet realize about the adult world that lie ahead of them. At the same time, adults just don't "get" young people. For a time, I could see both ways.
Gradually, I also didn't "get" young people. It was complete by age 30. It wasn't insensitivity; I had just moved so far from that shore that I was a stranger in that land. At the same time, as a parent, you have to move away from there. I had to admit that I really had no idea how a teenager felt anymore.
I am generalizing. But life has roughly these phases. Childhood is its own unique time; those memories are almost like they are from a story book. Then come our early, middle, and later years. Each has its own pleasures; each has its own struggles. There is no "best" age.
There is a best age for our physical selves. That is when our bodies have matured, but time has yet to take a toll. Things work well. It's a simple joy to work hard or just to run. I remember aching after football practice or baling hay. It was the good aching of muscles that were put to use, muscles that had a purpose.
When we arrive in the Middle Years, it is like arriving at a place you have heard a lot about. All the while we are growing up, the world is run by the adults. Suddenly we are one of them, we join the fraternity. There is some regret; gone are days when "having fun" were the primary goal.
These Middle Years are when we make whatever mark it is we will leave. If we are blessed with children, they will demand a large portion. This is the time we will do most of our work. Hopefully it is in a career we have chosen, or at least take satisfaction from.
Now, I can see an end, or a winding down, to this part of my life. I begin to sneak a look at the chapters near the end of the book. Like I did in my 20s, I feel like I am straddling two different worlds. I've got a few ideas about that what lies ahead, although I reserve the right to adjust on the go.
It looks like I'll have more choices to make. In the past few decades, I had to get this kid here, that kid fed, this job done by noon, and that meeting after supper. I can see swaths of time opening up. A couple weeks ago Ezra drove off to school with his brand new license. I've been driving somebody to school since our oldest started preschool 28 years ago. I was melancholy about that for a day or two, and then began to think, "Hey, this is kind of nice."
These years are a gift. There is a notion that "I have worked hard and I deserve a long retirement." I don't buy that. If fate is so kind as to let us have a career and to see our children grown, we are blessed. Friends Pete Hillesheim and Joe Hacker are two of the best human beings I have known, and they were not given Later Years.
If I have my druthers, I'd like to hang around for a few decades. But I'd better have something to give back if I am going to use up resources. With less immediate demands, the Later Years should be a time to share whatever skills and knowledge I have gathered along the way.
There is an old phrase that you don't hear much: "getting right with the Lord." If we're granted extra time on Earth, we have such a chance. We can correct a wrong. We can mend a relationship. We can spend time tightening the screws on our spiritual life. It might take me a while; I better get at it.