11 December 2015—two days before my mother’s 74th birthday—I am sitting in the recovery bay of Spartanburg Regional Heart Center with my nephew and looking at my father swimming back to us through the sedatives from having his pacemaker battery replaced.
My father will be 77 next month, and I, 55 a few days before. My nephew turns 33 in March. We have been discussing this oddity of symmetry among our ages lately.
As I watch my father, I realize I have been doing this recently every time I pass a mirror. It is the gaze of an aging man watching aging men.
My father wakes quickly, it seems, and is restless, even profane, demanding water and making as if he can stand to leave.
Soon after the technician explains the new pacemaker to all of us—he talks loudly and slowly to my father in a way that makes me very uncomfortable—the nurse comes in and allows my nephew and me to help my father dress.
Even without sedation, my father struggles now to lift himself out of chairs. He can barely reach his feet to put on his socks and shoes. His breathing is labored, and years have brought him to this: “The world is too much with us; late and soon,/ Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”
Days later, my father admits that he wanted me there because he didn’t think he would live through the procedure, although his doctor informed us after the replacement that the pacemaker has been remarkably therapeutic for my father’s heart, adding that the real problem is my father’s lack of exercise and being overweight—again, too much “world.”
23 December 2015—I have been sick for over a week, even going to the doctor (maybe the first time in over two years). One consequence of my puniness has been my inability to keep up with all my hair removal obligations: I shave my head, face, and legs (a serious cyclist for over 30 years) as well as groom a greying Van Dyke beard (yes, cliché for a man with a shaved head, I know, but forgive me my vanities).
That morning I can no longer tolerate the scraggly beard so I find myself standing in front of the mirror to trim it when I see my uncle Buddy and my grandfather Slick (who I dubbed Tu-Daddy).
After trimming, I post a comment about this seeing on Facebook and tag my uncle Buddy and aunt Patsy. Buddy, who will turn 66 in February (more arbitrary symmetry of ages), replies by posting a picture of Slick from 1970, when he was about the age I am now.
This moment on social media becomes another mirror for an aging man to gaze at aging men.
Like Slick in 1970, I am now a grandfather and a father, one who must face mirrors every day—the literal mirrors on walls around me and also the many faces of the ones I love.
No amount of shaving can reveal anything I do not already know. No amount of trimming the Van Dyke can deny the greying hair.
I too am of this “world” like my father, the years mooring me to the places of my life and slowing me incrementally.
Under the brakes of aging and the compulsion to gaze, there is again Wordsworth: “We have given our hearts away,” and I hear what a younger man cannot—even as my senses slowly fade.
For Further Reading
The World Is Too Much With Us, William Wordsworth
[my father moved through dooms of love], e.e. cummings
Do not go gentle into that good night, Dylan Thomas
Those Winter Sundays, Robert Hayden
Eating Together, Li-Young Lee
The Gift, Li-Young Lee
The Hospital Window, James Dickey