Tag Archive: milestones


gracefully

elderly couple in Bellagio, Italy

Photo Credit: Daderot; Licence: Public Domain

For most of my life, I’ve had the goal of aging gracefully. Even at my still reasonably youthful age of 31, it hasn’t been easy. To start, my hair started receding when I was in high school. There’s nothing that feels particularly graceful about someone guessing you’re 30 when you’re 18. Especially since people usually guess low.

“It’s just the way you carry yourself. You seem older.”

Sure it is.

There’s also nothing particularly graceful about your future in-laws telling your future wife to check your ID to make sure you’re not some geezer going after a younger woman. Okay, in fairness, I was singing Geoff Stephen’s Winchester Cathedral with my wife’s grandfather at the time, and I did know all the words. And they didn’t actually use the word “geezer.”

In university, I liked to chase caesars with margaritas. Now I just chase them with antacids.

Then a male friend told me the other day — swearing me to secrecy — that he feels like he’s getting wimpier with age. I told him I felt the same. Little things that wouldn’t have caused me to flinch before are now excruciating.

A milestone was reached the other day when I went to the dentist to pick up my new night guard. Not that it has anything to do with age because I’ve evidently had a very slight misalignment of my jaws as long as I’ve had adult teeth, but as I’m sitting there lisping to the hygienist through the apparatus, I couldn’t help feeling a little self-conscious. I kept reminding myself that Christian Bale wore a night guard in American Psycho, and he was the very picture of youth. Or, at least, I hope he wore a night guard. Don’t tell me if he didn’t; I don’t want to know.

When you find yourself trying to extract comfort from drawing comparisons between yourself and a fictional psychopath, you know you have problems.

Mark Twain’s witty remark to Edward Dimmit that “the first half of life consists of the capacity to enjoy without the chance; the last half consists of the chance without the capacity” now haunts me like a warning instead of  joke.

I know that aging gracefully is supposed to be about taking care of ourselves, accepting — even embracing — the changes that come with life, and not resigning ourselves to stagnancy.  I’m trying to follow my own tenet but, heck, maybe I won’t have to resign myself to stagnancy: maybe stagnancy doesn’t give a damn whether I resign myself.  Resistance Is Futile.

One time I got stuck on the dementia floor of a long-term care facility.  I had gotten into the elevator, but the elevator was called to a different floor, and I got out without realizing.  When I turned around to call the elevator again, the buttons were locked behind a Plexiglas cover.  Stairwells were locked behind doors which would trip an alarm if opened.  I started to wander through the halls filled with people with somewhat vacant expressions, searching for a staff person to let me out, my mild amusement at my mistake of getting off on the wrong floor rising rapidly to panic.  My brain goes ludicrous places when I panic.  I started thinking: what if they think I’m a resident here? How am I going to prove I’m not?  What if they never let me leave?

When I eventually found a staff person and told her that I couldn’t get off this floor, she joked without missing a beat, “me neither: I’ve been here since 1994.”  If you spend your days face-to-face with dementia, I suppose it’s healthy to develop a sense of humour about these things.

Then today, while waiting in line at the bank, an elderly woman said to her granddaughter — with genuine fear evident in her voice and in the expression on her face — “I’m just so worried about falling on the ice out there.”  Ice can be treacherous, but it never occurred to me to be terrified of going out when ice is on the ground.  But it makes sense.  A fall that, to me, would result maybe in a pulled muscle or minor strain can mean broken bones that never heal to person whose bones have brittled with age.

My point is: it’s easy to preach the virtues of aging gracefully when you picture yourself aging well, doing all the things you used to be able to do.  It’s easy to say “accept change” when you’re assuming the changes are going to be positive.

Taking care of ourselves is vital, but sometimes we’re a ticking time bomb no matter what we do.  My uncle has taken extremely good care of himself his whole life.  Or, leastways, my aunt has taken extremely good care of him.  An active lifestyle, regular exercise, healthy eating — all the good stuff.  Several years ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes.  Bang.  Quality of life diminished.  Resistance Is Futile.  Sure, he manages his health well, but let’s not pretend that everything’s “same as usual.”

On the other hand, there’s my friend Keith.  75 years old.  Drinks whiskey like I drink water.  Smoked since he was 14.  Broken every bone in his body, some more than once.  This is not a man who decided to navigate Life carefully.  But he’s one of the most active people I know.  This man just might outlive us all.

Or Patrick Stewart?  Let’s all stop pretending that man hasn’t tapped into some Elven elixir of life.  Yes, he’s aging but he looks better and better every year.

I think what I’ve learned is that we don’t know what the future holds.  Maybe I’ll live to 100 and still have use of all my faculties.  Maybe I’ll develop early onset dementia (some days, a case could be made that it’s already started).  Maybe I’ll die tomorrow.

None of these are new observations or thoughts: existentialist musings have been crystalized in history.  But for me, it emphasizes not just the old adages on seizing the day and living life to its fullest, but also the pure blessing of life.

Today, I am thankful for every molecule of breath in my lungs, for every beat in my heart.  If they’re my last, so be it.  If it gets harder to suck in that breath, or pump out that beat, too bad.  Right now, I Live, I Sing, I Dance, I Laugh.  Right now, I’m surrounded by people I love and who love me.  I’m golden.

Advertisements

knowledge

To any readers who have become accustomed to a more regular dose of gratitude, I apologize for having been missing in action for a while.  Getting back into the school year routine has taken a greater toll on my energy than usual.  Gregory’s homework regimen has clearly been developed by someone with a sadistic streak.  Helping him with the homework on top of getting the kids to/from their extracurricular activities, getting dinner on the table, spending as much quality time with the kids as possible, and everything else, has left me feeling that I need to hire a project manager just to keep my life under control.  Then I got sick, and things just went further south.

But enough of the pity party.  This is the life of every parent.  This is also what every September is like.  I always manage to wriggle my way back into the swing of the things before too long.

Photo Credit: Michael Anderson; Licence: Public Domain

The other night, while I sat with my son in our dining room moving from homework task to homework task, with the descending sun casting longer and longer shadows in the room, I found myself overwhelmed with bitterness.  That bitterness has arisen partially from the time and energy I have lost in trying to motivate my son to tackle his homework when he is understandably frustrated by the tedium and sheer volume of it.  The bitterness has also originated from seeing my son finally head to bed, exhausted.  But mostly the bitterness has developed from seeing a society that increasingly fails to let children be children.

In the midst of all that bitterness, however, one thing did occur to me: at least my children have access to public education.  I know there are cultures that don’t prize education greatly, and that the history of my culture is one which did not always recognize the right of all children — regardless of status or wealth — to benefit from education.  My children and I are fortunate to live in a time and place where each of us has the opportunity to pave a way for ourselves, not through our family names or the coins in our pocket, but through diligence and merit.

Today, I am grateful for public education.  It helps us work and live better, opens our minds, enriches our communities, and propels forward human understanding of this mysterious universe.

Gregory

birthday cake

Photo Credit: Lai Ryanne; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

My eldest son, Gregory, has always been a… difficult child.  And by “difficult,” I mean that I’ve put a bottle of burn ointment in my wife’s purse to have at the ready when we’re at church, in case the priest starts throwing around any holy water.

I joke.  Really, although he still presents some problems at school, he is now a predominantly well-behaved and easy child at home and elsewhere. But it wasn’t always that way.

My wife and I have both taught parenting in formal settings and, while that certainly does not make us Parents of the Year, it does mean that we are familiar with a few parenting techniques. Evidently, our methods worked with Gregory over time but, when he was younger, we were sometimes up against a wall. I distinctly remember a violent tantrum he had when he was four years old over something ridiculously trivial.  As I stood outside his bedroom, containing his path of destruction, I looked at Sandra in frustration and said, “we’re way beyond parenting technique; it’s time to call in the exorcist!”

But, despite — or maybe because of — all the challenges Gregory has presented over the years, I have developed a special place for him in my affections.  It is a place that has formed over years of sitting in school meetings and hearing the horrible things Gregory had done and, far more often, the horrible interpretations of innocuous or even amicable things he had done; because once a child is labeled “bad,” it is a label that follows him everywhere he goes.  I have seen innocent acts typical of his age become laden with sociopathic interpretation.  Knowing the wonderful child Gregory truly is, I’ve come to be his fiercest advocate and most devoted fan.

This is the kid who once, when I was bogged down with a cold, said, “when I’m sick, you and mom take good care of me, and it’s not fair that I can’t take care of you when you’re sick.  I wish I could do something to make you feel better.”  (“You just did,” I replied).

Yes, he most definitely has a special place in my heart.  It has waxed through his endearing precocity.  Recently, he was convinced that he was going to die because he believed he might have inadvertently consumed poison ivy oil through an endearingly complex and circuitous route starting with possible contact with the pernicious plant at the locus of his calf.  When I assured him he was not going to die, he demanded, “how do you know? What studies have you read?”  Another day, he turned to a visiting friend and said, “you’re still filled with child-like wonder, aren’t you?”

That special place has grown from driving down country roads, singing loudly along with Creedence Clearwater Revival, with Gregory accompanying from the back seat on air guitar and back-up vocals whenever he knows the words.  Then, when I tried to entertain him by an exaggerated bopping of my head during a guitar solo, he warned me, “now Dad, don’t get too carried away.”

And, finally, that special place in my affections has developed from Gregory calling headphones “earmuffs,” and the preacher’s bench in our foyer the “creature’s bench,” and from those quiet moments when I am alone and he will find me and give me a hug and tells me he loves me.

Childhood passes in these discrete moments and, if we’re not careful, we might miss it altogether.

Today is Gregory’s 9th birthday and, today, I am thankful for him.  As a parent, I take seriously my duty to encourage Gregory to be the best person he can be, but I also have the rare privilege of being made a better person each day by him.  The few struggles richen the good moments, and teach me to be grateful for life’s tiny joys.

the gang

Today, I am thankful for family.  This is important because I don’t think I feel nearly as grateful for family as I should.  There are times when having a break from my family is necessary for my sanity and, altogether, having young children, I don’t feel that I have enough solitude.  But, as I have mentioned before (kidcationsolitude), one of the reasons I enjoy the moments of solitude I do get from time to time is because they help me appreciate my family more.

The Gang

Photo Credit: (c) J. Matthew Lake

Alright, maybe one of the reasons I like having family is selfishly motivated.  It’s nice, after a difficult day at work, to be able to come home and have someone to hear my gripes.  And, no matter what mistakes I make — even after one of my cataclysmic screw-ups — I’m still loved.

Joe: But Allison loves you?

Quince: [nods, sobbing]

Joe: How do you know?

Quince: Because she knows the worst thing about me… and it’s okay.

— Meet Joe Black (1998)

I also feel that good moments are made more memorable when there is someone with whom to share them.  Not only the fun and special moments, but even the simple moments when I do something which has value to me, but which would be too insignificant to bother mentioning to someone else.  In turn, I have the chance to be a witness to my family’s lives too: their dreams and hopes; their falls and the things they overcome.  And not just a witness; a participant.

We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet… I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness’.” 

Susan Sarandon, Shall We Dance (2004)

When my life ends, I will have had the privilege of having spent my life with not just any people, but these specific people: my “peeps,” my gang.  That makes me feel fortunate.

teacher

Who was your favourite teacher?  I know you had one.  We all did.

I had a few memorable ones, but the first and most memorable one was my grade 5 teacher, Mrs. Keating.  Before her, I was a goofy kid with my head in the clouds.  After her, I was still a goofy kid with my head in the clouds, but felt better about myself for it.  She instilled in me a love of writing and generally made me feel like I had a special place in the world.  A lot of who I am today, I owe to her.

Teaching has changed a great deal over the years, spanning back to the archetypal one-room school teacher: scholarly, poorly paid, highly scrutinized.  The chief and sole reward of the position was the opportunity to enrich young minds, to make a difference.

Child raising his hand in the classroom

Photo Credit: Michael Anderson; Licence: Public Domain

Sometimes teachers are yet another class of secret hero, changing the world behind chalk-dusted dockers and polka-dotted skirts.  Perhaps it doesn’t carry with it the diamond-studded glamour enjoyed by the “heroes” we raise up on pedestals.  But there is a small village somewhere in the world — it doesn’t matter where.  There is a little girl who is the first in her family to go to school.  It took a lot of work for the missionaries to convince the elders and her parents that there was benefit to this. Now she is bumbling off to the small school house built by the people of her village.  It’s her first day.  She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s about to meet someone she will never forget, someone who will give her possibly the greatest gift anyone will ever give her: education.  Maybe if we fast forward 25 years, that same girl is an economist, working with the government to bring a better life to people like the ones in her village.  Try to tell her that her first teacher, 25 years ago, wasn’t a hero.

Now the job pays better, thank goodness, although I think teachers put up with a lot more attitude and defiance in the classroom.  Like that one-room school teacher, though, the greatest reward for most isn’t the pay cheque at the end of the week but the possibility that, some day, one of those children will grow up to do something extraordinary, and the teacher can reasonably enjoy a brief moment of pride in knowing that he or she might have contributed to that.  Even better if that young mind — now older — looks back through all of the angsty years, the awkward years, the first kiss, the first love, the first thrill of learning something that made his or her mind explode with possibility, and says, “thanks.”

I haven’t done anything extraordinary.  I hope some day I will.  But no matter what happens, I still want to say: thanks, Mrs. Keating — today, I am grateful for you.

Who was your favourite teacher?  I know you had one.  We all did.  Tell me about yours in the Comments.

Sandra

Today is the fourth anniversary of my marriage to my wife and, today, I am thankful for her.

I wasn’t a huge fan of marriage before I proposed to Sandra. I was happy when other people found happiness in marriage, but just couldn’t see it working out for me. I had seen too many people fall in love and then watched it end in divorce and, sometimes, bitter hate. I had worked professionally with people who could no longer stand to be in the same room with each other and had devoted themselves obsessively to making their ex-partner’s life as miserable as possible, and their children were caught in the cross-fire.  When those people got married, they no doubt believed it would last forever. Who was I to think I was exempt from the power of time to erode our illusions?

The simple fact is people change over time.  Right now, yes, I can spend the rest of my life with this person, but what if she’s not the same person in 10 years?  What if I’m not the person I am now?  Sandra believed marriage was forever and, if I wanted to commit to her, I also had to commit to that ideology.  I’m not a big risk taker: with so many “what ifs,” I was wary of taking the plunge.

It occurred to me, though, that life is filled with the unexpected.  Sandra put a lot of stock in marriage: she saw it as a key to her happiness, and it wasn’t sufficient just to “be” together.  Maybe I would get hit by a bus tomorrow and I would have missed out on the opportunity of making her happy, and sharing in that happiness. The point is that we never know what the future will bring, so why allow it to enter into the equation?

The proposal wasn’t easy.  I forgot the ring for one thing. Not a good start. Then the weekend was filled with all the sorts of hurdles that made it not the weekend to propose, because it simply was not going to be perfect.  But then I realized that nothing in our lives has gone perfectly.  If anything, our first year together was a complete disaster, filled with one mishap after another.  In that sense, it was the perfect weekend to propose: imperfection – a microcosm of our entire relationship. Why not share imperfection and fight misfortune together?

When I said “I Do,” I was committing to loving Sandra for the rest of my life, and that was a committment I knew I could keep, regardless of what the future had in store for us.

Four years later, I can say that marriage has become easier with each year, and I feel more love for Sandra with each passing day.  Does she drive me nuts? Sure. More than anyone I know. But I feel joy when I know that I have the privilege of spending my life with a truly marvelous woman and phenomenal supermom; someone I love and — more meaningfully — trust; someone who still loves me even when I am at my worst.

kidcation

My children are staying with their grandparents this week and you’ll forgive me this small confession: I’m thrilled.

I have a very transparent and at times eye-roll-inducing sentimentality  for my children.  They really have brought a level of fulfillment in my life I never thought was possible.  The first time I spent even a weekend away from my eldest, I was a bundle of nerves.  He was fine, of course.  When we dropped him off, we fell to chatting with my in-laws and he came into the room where we were talking and said, “aren’t you gone yet?”  He was three and already breaking my heart.

I enjoyed my time away, but also couldn’t help but worry that he would wake in the middle of the night and want his parents.  I was ridden with parental guilt.  In the end, he had a ton of fun and my heart was mended when we picked him up and he ran into my arms and gave me a big hug.

Since then, we’ve been away from both of our boys several times, and I have become less and less obsessive each time.  I haven’t even had to stop myself from picking up the phone to call them this week, and that is the very definition of progress. Moreover, I enjoy my time away from them because it is an opportunity for my wife and I to step out of roles as parents and into our roles as husband and wife, a territory which has the potential to become foreign if we don’t take time periodically to explore it.

Most importantly, being away from the boys helps me appreciate them more. No good parent will doubt the many joys of parenting, but there is a bundle of drudgery to go along with it. It’s a tedium wrapped up in a jumble of laundry, homework, tantrums, rivalry, attitude — I needn’t continue the lengthy list.  But all of that washes away when, after a week of absence, tiny arms wrap around my neck, and small voices call me “Daddy.”

Today, I am thankful for what I have come to term “kidcations” and for the people who make them possible.

life

I read the news each day.  I try to stick to humour or lifestyle columns but it’s difficult to force my eyes away from the distraction of the death and corruption splashed across the headlines of the top news stories.  As time progresses, I am more affected by the stories I read. I suppose that’s reassuring: becoming desensitized over time would be a disturbing thought. Stories of travesties against children anger me and upset me the most; reports of senseless deaths give me the greatest sense of emptiness.

As I write that term — “senseless deaths” — I am struck at how strange that sounds, as if death is ever sensible.  But when a life is erased because of an isolated moment of carelessness or over something trivial, it has the power to thrust me into a state of existential despair.  Death after a full life feels different.

Not too long ago, my wife’s great-grandmother passed away at the age of 103. You’ll think I’m a sociopath for saying it but, as fond as I was of the woman, I couldn’t help but feel a bit happy at her funeral.  Here was a woman who had gone through two world wars and lived to hold her great-great-grandchildren in her arms.  She enjoyed her wine when it was made available to her, and she had a good sense of humour, and an endearing sense of morality.  Once, as she held our infant son in her arms and I confirmed that he was her great-granddaughter’s child and that I was the father, she cast me first a disapproving look, and then one of  disbelief as I reassured her she had been at our wedding and that the child had not been born out of wedlock.  Dementia was eroding her memory and, as the end approached, I saw the appearance of anxiety and fear as she tried to navigate a world which was starting to become confusing and overwhelming to her.  When she died peacefully, it felt wrong to feel sadness.  She had consumed life and sucked the marrow from the bone.  Her funeral was an opportunity to celebrate a life well-lived.

Those of you familiar with Tom Waits might remember his song “Time” with its simple chorus of:

And it’s Time, Time, Time

And it’s Time, Time, Time

And it’s Time, Time, Time

That you love

And it’s Time, Time, Time.

Life is time. Time to spend doing the things that make my life meaningful. Today, I am thankful for life; for the air that enters my lungs; for the reliable beating of my heart.  It can be snuffed out at any second, and that makes it all the more precious.

Zachary

We celebrated the third birthday of my youngest, Zachary, today. I spent hours decorating his Lightening McQueen cake, which was devoured in seconds. My wife, Sandra, and I devoted lots of time to the preparation of food for all the family who came to spend this special day with him. It, too, was consumed rapaciously. The day had no fewer tantrums than any other day with Zachary, but it was compensated for by at least a few more smiles. Later, as I reviewed photographs, it occurred to me that any outside observer would think I was never present for these milestone events. As the man behind the camera, I am conspicuously absent in the photographic record. Years from now, Zachary will possibly remember the people who surrounded him and the shiny toys he received and, maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll earn a place in the footnotes. But no matter: I console myself with my memories, and the privilege — yes, the privilege — of being able to play a role in the far too rapid growth of my willful, stubborn, frustrating, and also charming, adorable, and marvelous son, from infancy to adulthood, even if it is a sometimes invisible and thankless job.  Today, I am thankful for Zachary, and the sepia-toned days of his youth, fleeting though they may be.

If you are a parent, congratulations, thank-you, and good luck. If you’re not a parent, please send this on to your parent, or a parent you know, along with this message: the difference you make is immeasurable.

%d bloggers like this: