Sunday, January 12, 2003

45 brings calls for wisdom

Forty-five is neither here nor there. When you're 45, you're too old to be young and too young for the hotel discount. You hope where you've been will help you get where you're going, but even after 45 years, you don't know.

You're in the eye of the hurricane, halfway to something.

How are you supposed to feel about a birthday when you are 45?

When do birthdays stop being cause for celebration and start pumping your dread?

Are they ever again the loose-limbed, joyous occasions they used to be?

I turned 45 New Year's Eve. Daddy's Little Tax Deduction spent the day working in Arizona. Three days later, I climbed one of Tucson's highest hills (young!) and slipped on the rocks, jamming a finger and ripping skin from my palm (old).

Age 30 didn't get me. Neither did 40.

Forty-five hit me like a ton of introspection.

We grow too soon old and too late smart. I wanted to hasten the smart process. I called a few people.

From the porch of his home on Swan Lake in Florida, Myron Yoho can see pelicans diving for fish. On pastel, soft mornings, he rises to the splash of the birds. Myron eyes the lake through binoculars. Occasionally, he turns to his crossword puzzle. Hours linger, but never long enough.

Myron will be 90 in March, twice as old as I.

"How do you feel about birthdays now?'' I want to know. "What have you learned in the last 45 years you wish you knew in the first 45?''

"I love birthdays,'' he says. "I cherish them all, I really do.''

Myron is my wife's uncle. He almost died five years ago. His heart stopped, his eyes closed, he saw people walking in light. It was quiet and peaceful. "When I came out of it, I knew where I'd almost gone,'' Myron says.

A few miles away, in the same town, Mabel Bowen picks up the phone and sings: "Everybody has a New Year, you might as well have one, too.''

She is 90, twice as old as I.

"What have you learned in the last 45 years?'' I ask.

Be good, Mabel says. "Serve God. Do you go to church?''


"All the time?''


"Go, then,'' Mabel says.

Mabel's eyes are bad. She can't read without special light. Her heart is problematic. Ask her about birthdays, she says, "They come and go. You don't pay much attention.''

I want to know, when I am 90, what will be important to me. I want to know what will matter most then, so I can work on it now.

Myron loves birthdays. Mabel doesn't.

They are 11 months apart in age, strangers living in the same town, but they say the same thing to me now.

"I don't want to leave Florence,'' says Myron. Florence is his wife. "That's my one goal, to stay here with Florence.''

Mabel's husband, Carl, died a decade ago. "I don't really want to be here, but I am,'' she says. "When you've lost most of your friends and your husband is gone . . .'' the rest of her thought hangs like a torn promise. "It makes a big difference,'' Mabel adds, after a while.

Myron had two sons die young, one in a railroad accident in 1969, the other while driving a race car, in 1983. Myron has been 20 years without his kids.

Someone once wondered, if life isn't good, then why do old men cry when young men die?

"Just enjoy those children of yours every day and hope nothing happens to them,'' Myron says.

Mabel says she misses Carl every day. They traveled a lot. "Saw the world,'' she says. "Twenty-two countries.'' Mabel can close her eyes and summon all the trips she took with Carl. It is enough, she says, to keep the days moving. It has to be.

"Cherish your family,'' Mabel says.

We exhaust ourselves wondering about the everyday - the money, the work, the goals - when all we really need is someone to be there at the end of the day.

Companionship, friendship, love. Someone next to you when your time comes.

Two days after we spoke, Mabel entered the hospital, her heart racing.

It took the doctors three days to slow it down. She's in there still. My parents visited her. They made sure she wasn't alone.


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