The Toughest Transition

By Bob Howard In Essays

The Toughest Transition

I sobbed through the night before the morning I first went to Mrs. Moore’s kindergarten class. And that was months before Grace pushed me into the hot radiator in that room, causing a burn which turned into impetigo.

I managed at Burdick Junior High to stifle an almost overwhelming desire to slug Peter Horton when he, in his after-school ritual, incited others in my class to take up the chant, “Howard’s mother.” Why and what I never did understand.

I thought I would flunk out of college, or at least lose my scholarship, when in my freshman year at college, professor of English, Fred Stocking, handed me a D warning; and I still had to submit a collateral on a poem by Wallace Stevens. Home and December seemed so far away.

In Mamaroneck, student assistant minister I was, I taught an eighth grade Sunday School class. A student’s father, a professor at NYU, determined from his daughter’s reports that I was hopelessly orthodox in my view of Jesus. He wanted me gone. I went, if not kicking and screaming, then understandably concerned about my future in the church.

The bishop sent me to Brooklyn, a destination this suburban child had never envisioned for himself. The congregation was gracious, but or because they didn’t understand me. What on earth was I doing in the land of rowhouses?  Of course, my Dodgers were there… but only for another year.

Seventeen and a half years later, I moved fourteen miles east. I was well-received for the most part. The president of the Woman’s Society of Christian Service, however, greeted me with an unsettling question: “What made you think that at forty-one you could be the pastor of a large church with a thousand members?”

In retirement I found myself among strangers who had no idea of who I was or what I had done for most of 50 years. Nor did they have any inkling of how important I thought I once was.

Transitions have been tough for me all my life. Probably no tougher than you have experienced, but tough, frustrating, and anxiety producing all the same. But no transition has been as tough for me as growing old. It is an education in dependency and lowered expectations.


Old Man

Exercise After Lunch

I have been heard to declare in the locker room and other spaces of cultural sanctity, “Eighty is the pits.” Whereas I spent most Julys clipping privet hedges and evergreens, I now cannot clip my toenails and must sublimate my macho spirit sufficiently to permit Anna to give me a pedicure. A stroll around the block is exhausting. A landscaper scapes the lawn and a snowblower blows clear the garage pan, and neither of them is me. Once I stood by the saucepan as long as it took to prepare risotto; now I sit on a high stool to watch the coffee perk. Thank God, Barbara is like the Energizer Bunny and does all the heavy lifting.

Doctors don’t help much. They’re too young and die too early to be able to address the vagaries of advancing age. When I asked the cardiologist, forty years my junior, “How should I feel?”; he responded by asking me, “Well, how do you think you ought to feel?” The physical insults of a lifetime accumulate. The taste buds diminish in sensitivity. The varicose veins require compression stockings. A blue sign hanging from the rearview mirror tells everyone about my limited mobility.

I put the 16 pound shot forty-three feet in 1951; in 2017 I have to ask my grandson to change the light bulbs. The framed legend on the wall of the Gamper dining room read: "Growing Old Isn't for Sissies."  Once upon a time transitions, if filled with anxiety, also provided great satisfaction, like, say, learning how to kiss a girl friend. Now my compensation for taking my diuretic pill is five visits to the small room down the hall.

A consolation in the struggle of the latest transition, one which probably only would occur to a retired preacher, is that I can endorse with blood and bone the first Beatitude, which reads in the New English Bible version of Matthew 5:3, "How blest are those who know their need of God, the kingdom of heaven is theirs." True, and truer still when the need of God is linked with the need for Barbara... which may be the same thing, considering how God acts, usually through human agency. 

Onward, if not always upward.




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