Growing Older

By Bob Howard In Essays

I stepped into the fifteen seat shuttle bus for the return to the parking lot from the ferry.  I was the sixteenth passenger.  Two young women rose to offer me their seats.  I declined their kindness.  It wasn't chivalry. I blurted out, "No thank you.  Refusal is the last vestige of my attempts to deceive myself into thinking I am younger than I am." Another woman, standing large and smiling, suggested I grab the overhead railing to steady myself as the bus moved.  She also suggested that I could fall into her if it came to that, and I would be well-cushioned.

Later that evening having returned to West Hartford, I opened the mail.  An oversized envelope from a division of the DMV carried a plastic sign to be hung from the rearview mirror.  I wrote my signature on the sign and listed the last four digits of my Connecticut driver's license. The sign reads on a field of blue with a wheelchair icon:  PO964630.  The following day, Sunday, after church I drove, as is our wont, to Starbucks and occupied the handicapped parking space twenty-five feet from the front door, went inside, and drank my cappuccino.

Stenosis humbles me.  But the sign emboldens me.  I can now park downtown next to the restaurant that sells my favorite oysters. Trips to the supermarket are no longer framed with small anxieties about how far from the checkout counter I'll have to walk.  Friends and neighbors may be more inclined to include me in their entertainment excursions... if I bring along my blue plastic sign to hang in their car... next to the front door of the venue.

Of course, some of you will needle me with your predictable admonitions to be more optimistic, less complainy.

As I explain to my gym buddies who, unlike me, are full of vim and vigor, the biggest problem in growing older is accepting dependency.  I.e., restricted mobility parking signs.  I spent seventy of the past eighty-five years doing everything myself.  (Well, sure, I didn't do much cooking or cleaning, and I left major car repairs to the garage mechanic.)  But I built a cabin, refinished gym floors, clipped hedges, set up and tore down chairs and tables for church dinners, chased teenagers smoking pot from dark corners of the church property, flushed ice from frozen drains on the block-long parish house, plus many other church-keeping chores about which I was told over and again, "Pastor, you shouldn't have to do that."  Of course, I didn't have to; but I enjoyed doing it, and, I confess, taking unsaintly pride in my moment of strength and savvy.

The savvy may remain, but the strength is gone.

In the years of my ascendancy I pondered the King James Version version of the first Beatitude, "Blessed are the poor in spirit. for theirs is  the kingdom of heaven."  That seems counterintuitive.  Surely it is the strong in spirit who should get God's blessing. Still I figured Jesus usually makes sense, so there should be something to his blessing on those who, in the translation of the New English Bible, "know their need of God."  Like: the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.  That is, a due regard for one's own mortality provides a solid place to stand when viewing the world and your own place in it.

We are always dependent on the grace of God, when strong and savvy no less than when hanging a  restricted mobility sign on the rearview mirror.

But I detect an additional message in the first Beatitude, other than our dependence on the deity, good fortune, or however you identify the agency which holds our lives in and out of balance.  Namely, that we are also dependent on each other for a blessed condition.  My, my, how often I have thought that thought lately watching my helpmate toasting the bread and putting mayonnaise on slices of roast turkey for my lunch. Or sat at my desk at the front window of my den and followed the landscaper preparing our lawn for its winter sleep... as at this very moment I write.

Toward the end, as at the beginning, of our lives our need of each other is simply the terms on which we have life.  Maybe that is also what Jesus means when he tells us that unless we become as children we shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Maybe that is also what he means by insisting the first shall be last and vice versa. Our society has an aggravated appreciation for the rugged individualist. Getting older is the cure for that fantasy of self-sufficiency.

Next time I'll take the seat on the bus a young woman offers me.

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