Photo Credit: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images
For my son
A young acquaintance of mine at a summer camp where we work told me at breakfast the other day that, because of my age, I am now part of a “protected class.”
“Protected from what?” I asked. There were about a hundred things that came to mind almost immediately for me: hammers, hot stovetops, sudden loss of cabin pressure, to name three. If, indeed, I am part of a protected class, these are things from which I would definitely seek protection.
My young friend–let’s call him Colin–turned in his seat to face me. This is something younger people do in deference to older people, you know, to acknowledge the widespread problems of hearing loss and cognitive meanderings in the elderly.
“Let me explain,” he began. This is also something younger people do; it’s important to tell an older person that you are going to explain something before you actually explain it. It’s polite, yes, but it’s also a way to capture someone’s focus, particularly if that someone is either very old or very young or is known to possess a wandering mind. It’s the linguistic equivalent of snapping one’s fingers before another’s eyeballs.
“Are you with me?”
At this point, I was sure to appear attentive, even though all I could really think about was the porch rail behind Colin’s head, on top of which a crafty little chipmunk sat working the foil from a pat of butter he’d nicked from the waffle stand.
Store this next bit away for a minute or two: my thirteen-year-old son was also at this summer camp, living in a cabin with a bunch of other thirteen-year-old boys.
“In the workplace,” Colin said, “I’m not allowed to say, for example, that you look tired today.” I was grateful for the example, which really galvanized the problem for me in a way that it would not have been had Colin not been so thoughtful to provide it.
“But what if I am tired?” I asked.
“You might be,” he said. “And I might think that. But I am not allowed to tell you that.” Colin put a special emphasis on this last part and made his eyes wide as tea saucers, which was a clear signal to me that I should respond by registering my comprehension.
“And you can’t tell me this because … ?” I asked.
“I can’t tell you this because you’re over forty,” Colin said.
“But if I were younger than forty, you could tell me I looked tired?” I asked.
“Exactly,” Colin said. He looked very pleased with himself, this young man, which made me very pleased in return. Really, isn’t that what we in the older set are supposed to live for? To make young people happy?
Colin went on: “By the same token,” he said, “I am not allowed to say that you look especially energetic today.”
“I do not like the phrase ‘by the same token,’” I said, but I don’t think the words actually came out of my mouth. I think it was just a thought bubble inside my head and I read the words quietly to myself. I didn’t want to offend Colin, you see, because I was worried about what it might do to his self-esteem if I said I hated his centuries-old, overused idiom.
Instead, I said, “Go on.”
“Saying you look especially energetic today would imply that you looked tired yesterday,” Colin said. “And that is equally offensive.”
“Got it,” I said. “And all of this because I am over forty?”
“Right,” Colin said, “It’s ageism.” And with that, he turned in his seat once more, this time back to his breakfast. “I bust my dad’s chops about this all the time,” Colin said, forking egg into his mouth.
I suppose I could have turned right around and busted Colin’s eggy chops for implying that I am old enough to be his father. I am, of course, but I could give a chipmunk’s nuts about the whole issue, because in my slowly failing mind, I have more pressing things to consider. Like outliving my retirement and having to become a WalMart greeter at eighty-five, which thanks to my protected class-ship, is a viable option, even if I’m held together with nothing more than Ben Gay and Super Poligrip. That’s the real story about ageism, anyway; Colin only told a small part of it. True, you can’t say things like “Did someone forget her Prevagen today?” to the grade school’s forgetful, geriatric secretary. But all other things being equal, you can’t not put her in that chair simply because she’s geriatric. The law itself is a couple decades older than Colin.
“Well,” I said. “We wouldn’t want anyone thinking you’re an ageist.” At this point, I swallowed the last bit of my coffee, grounds and all, because that’s what an old man on the Great Plains would have done, right after picking his teeth clean with a horseshoe nail.
This conversation with Colin started because I’d mentioned how, on the way to breakfast, I stopped another young man outside the staff restroom. This other guy–let’s call him Luke–is in his early thirties so, like Colin, I have a couple of decades on him and could, realistically, be his father.
I said, “Hey Luke, you got a second?”
I had wanted to share with Luke a tiny bit of news about one of his staff, and maybe just stand beneath the blue sky and whispering trees for a few moments, breathing in the piney scent of blessed human connection.
To his credit, Luke did stop for me, albeit briefly, and for a solid twenty seconds he let me chit-chat with him about kiln glazes, which was kind. There came a point however–at about twenty-one seconds, to be precise–when Luke could tell that I wanted to connect more intimately. Maybe he felt me veering into a wisdom-sharing space: “If I were your age, Luke, I’d always carry a Swiss Army knife.” Sensing this, Luke lifted his cup of French-pressed coffee in my direction, then begged off abruptly, since around this summer camp it has apparently become evident that I have a tendency to prattle and overshare. If you want to get somewhere quickly and I’m in your path, take the long way around.
“Cheers,” Luke said, “but I have to shave. And then I have a meeting.” He then left for the staff restroom, and I found myself apologizing for keeping him so long–of course, of course, sorry to have interrupted, that kind of thing–words that by the time I had spoken them were suspended unheard in the cool space between my mouth and the back of Luke’s shaving kit, slung over his shoulder, as it vanished up a wooden ramp and through the bathroom door.
I hadn’t felt that jilted since my senior prom, when my date opened the passenger door, my car still moving, not quite to her driveway.
Funny thing, this being “protected.” Now in my fifties, I have never in my life felt so vulnerable, and here’s the irony: the thing from which I apparently need protection most is one of the few things I’m actually pretty good with.
Words, like hammers and hot stovetops, can be painful, but so can the lack of them.
It’s at this point I return to my thirteen-year-old son. If you remember back a minute or so, I asked you to keep his presence in mind. He is at the summer camp, too, along with Colin and Luke and about three-hundred other people. I could talk to just about any of them, but it’s my son I yearn for most. Sadly, at least for me, he does not share that yearning.
My son is at a point in his “development”–this is what really smart people who write about adolescents call it–where he rarely says anything to me. He grunts a lot, and he does this thing with his chin where he kind of chucks it in my general direction as he passes, but that’s only if we accidentally make eye contact. Other than grunting and chin-chucking, I get nothing. He doesn’t say much to his mother or sisters, either, and I’m told this is natural and normal in the same way it’s natural and normal for monkeys to stick their long fingers in each other’s noses. But to me, my son’s indifference feels anything but natural and normal. To me, it feels rudderless, vacant, and desperately silent.
These same really smart people who publish really smart articles call what my son is now navigating “natural separation”; he apparently must establish an identity apart from the people who brought him into this world. If he doesn’t, he may not make it on his own. There are several subclasses and behaviors here, things like “closing himself in his room,” “pulling limbs from amphibians,” “writing poems about Satan,” “spray painting neighborhood cats,” stuff like that. Lucky for me, my son falls into the behavior subclass of “one-word answers and annoyed eye-rolling.” Yes, this is a real category according to these really smart people, and apparently because my son is in this category, I should not be concerned. Marginalized and sad, but not concerned.
I am grateful he doesn’t spray paint neighborhood cats.
I told Colin at breakfast about this, too, just before his little lesson on ageism: “I’m going to be one of those old men dressed up at the nursing home, waiting for his children who never come,” I said.
“You need to get over it,” Colin said, which I suppose was true, but it didn’t make me want to spit on his eggs any less.
That’s because there’s nothing worse for an older person than hearing pithy but accurate advice from a younger person. My children–all but my son, of course–say stuff like this all the time: “you need to chill,” “you need to take a nap,” “you need to have a glass of wine and buy me a Louis Vuitton purse.” Really, that happened once.
Later in the week, after my encounters with Colin and Luke, my friend Audrey said this: “You need to be a houseplant.” That was a new one. I had never had someone tell me to be a houseplant.
It is better advice, I think, better than “You need to get over it,” because it is a metaphor, and I understand metaphor. Audrey is her real name, by the way, and she is one of those really smart people who write about children and the million tiny deaths they inflict on their parents over their lifetimes.
“For now,” she said, “your job is to just stand in the corner and not say anything.” Interestingly, she said this while we were walking along a dusty trail avoiding piles of horseshit shot through with strands of yellow hay. That could also be considered a metaphor, in case you young folks out there were wondering what parenthood can sometimes be like.
So, there you have it. A houseplant. A metaphor. My daughters are grown now, and they need me in different, more active ways. I am helping them “adult,” they say, which involves things like understanding car registrations, annual percentage rates, and mortgage insurance. I have also told them both that thirteen-hundred dollar handbags are only for people with what is known as “disposable income,” a term that will not likely, if ever, be part of our family’s vernacular. Maybe in their next lives, if they marry well, but not now, not here. They understand this. In my daughters’ lives, I am more than just a houseplant.
But my son. Oh, my son. Here’s what I will do for you: I will stand potted and unprotected in the corner, doing my best to stay upright and shiny. I will offer you joy in the smallest of measures, letting a ray of sun, for example, glance off my broad, dusty leaves. In this newer place, in this corner far from you, I will age with slow dignity, and when you are ready, when your path once again points in my direction and I am not someone to steer clear of, I will accept with a grateful heart your offerings of light and water and air and words as they slip from you like they once did, in a different time, when you were young and talkative and I could do nothing to keep you from singing.