The Happiness that Takes Some Time to Ripen

We had sat down for the reception at my niece’s wedding—tables of eight arranged all around the room—when I realized how my brother had seated us.  It was the three living siblings from my generation—Bill, Rusty, and me, with our wives—along with our sister’s oldest child Tade and her husband.  “I’m sitting with the grown-ups,” Tade said.  (She’s 54 years old.)

Our sister Sally died in 2010.  The weddings in our generation started with Sally’s wedding in 1958, when she was eighteen and I was ten.  This was the last wedding from our children’s generation, sixty years later.[1]

I was overwhelmed at this thought.

Thornton Wilder—who was obsessed with the passage of time, vast periods of time as well as shorter ones—wrote a one-act play called The Long Christmas Dinner, in which dialogue would be proceeding, then one of the people would put their head on the table, and eventually move away, and a new person would appear.  It was about all the Christmas dinners that had happened over a period of years, again and again, people dying, new people being born.

In recent years the focus of such events in our family was my mother and my stepfather, who had gotten married in their late sixties—after my mother had been a widow for eighteen years—and been together for 22 years, until his death.  She died five years later, a few months after my sister died of cancer.  They had been so much the focus of things that we had hardly gotten together for years, since their funerals.  Now we were together again.

And we were the old people.

I recently read an article by Douglas Penick in Tricycle where he had this short section, ending with a rhetorical question.

“An old man in the elevator is shaking his head. In a bitter voice, he tells me how sick he has been, that aging ‘takes so much away from you. You lose so much.’

I am in the same situation, of course, and I feel resistant to his depression. I wonder, isn’t there more to it? Suddenly I want to know:

‘But what does old age give?’”

What old age has given me is happiness.  Overwhelming happiness.

During the reception, while we were sitting with my niece, the subject of her wedding came up, which I had no memory of.  We figured out that it had taken place during one of the summers when my wife and I had been living in Cambridge, a summer when she worked at an AIDS hospice and we took a trip to Mexico, so I figured we had missed the wedding.  My wife insisted we had gone.  We got into one of those spats that people have at our age, where she was saying my memory was faulty (my greatest fear, of course), I was saying hers was so good that she remembered things that hadn’t happened.  I was quite sure of myself.  How could I possibly forget my niece’s wedding?  I knew I had an ace in the whole.  I kept voluminous journals in those days, and I could go back in my journal and prove that we hadn’t gone to the wedding, that we had been in Mexico during that time.

I went back in my journals and found that we had gone to the wedding.  Our trip to Mexico came later.  I still have no memory of that wedding.

I also discovered an earlier entry where my mother called and told me my brother Bill had prostate cancer.  It had just been diagnosed; they had found cancer cells when they did a biopsy, even though he was just 46 years old.  Though I don’t remember the wedding, I vividly remember from that trip a walk that Bill and I took around the cross country course of our old high school, scene of his greatest triumphs.  He’d been the cross country captain two years running.

Bill was convinced his life was over.  Even if he did survive the cancer, his writing was so connected with his sexuality that he would wind up being a shriveled-up and impotent old man.  “I’m bitter,” he admitted to me.  “Really bitter.”

Twenty-five years later he seems happy in a way I’ve never seen him before.  Traveling all over the world, still involved in various writing projects, vividly engaged with life.

What I also saw when I went back in those notebooks was what a tormented soul I was, worried over everything, fretting that I wasn’t getting enough sex, that I wasn’t getting enough writing done, that I was eating too much and getting fat (especially on that trip to Mexico).  These, I would have to say, have been the obsessions of my life.  They’re still around now.  But in 1992 they were like a raging fire, which seemed to burn every day, long journal entry after long journal entry, working over the same things.  Now they’re barely glowing coals.  They’re there, but I don’t pay much attention to them.

I know I’m going to die.  I’m closer to death than I was 25 years ago (though death could come at any time, as my brother’s cancer reminded us), and death is as great a mystery as life.  I have no idea what follows.

But the great gift of old age is that things fall away.  Worries fall away, obsessions: you can only think something so much (like I really need to lose a few pounds) before it starts to look a little ridiculous.  And what has helped me more than anything else, what has largely caused those things to fall away, is the meditation practice I discovered just before those journal entries, in 1991.  (My journal is full of struggles with meditation, almost every entry begins with that, how I can’t stop my thinking, I wish I could stop thinking.  I turn even that into a worry).  I don’t know how meditation works.  I don’t know why it works.  I know it’s not the only thing that works.  But somehow, the habit of sitting every day and staring at a wall allows those obsessive thoughts to eventually fall away (I still have lots of thinking.  I just don’t pay much attention to it), and what’s left when they fall away is life.  Abundant life.  The beauty of the sacred world.  A family gathered at a wedding feast one more time.

I find it overwhelming.

[1] The last first wedding, at least.  Everyone at this point is partnered.