How did this happen? Earlier this year, I reached the big SEVEN O. It was an unexpected shock to the system. Why was this milestone any different than the many that had gone before? I had already accepted the given that "we are all terminal." That death stalks us from birth. However, there was something about turning 70 that created amazement at the "accomplishment" as well as giving pause for reflection on the past.
My parents had both lived into their seventies, but they were "old." Lots of physical ailments and a myopic view of new technologies. I feel like I am in my twenties, trapped in an old geezer body and driving an old geezer car (a Buick). My health is pretty decent, and while I don't understand many of the new technologies, I am not afraid of them. My dad used to say that microwave ovens were "The devil's work!" How could you cook food without heat? I am cowed by many features on my smart phone, but I could program a VCR back in the day.
This age thing is not that, despite all the good stuff, I will never have accomplished some of the bright and shining goals I had in life and that my bucket list is barely crossed off. It's more how fast everything has gone by. I first listened to that new sensation, the Beatles, at 16 with a full head of hair and slim build; I listen to the Beatles now - bald and paunchy. Same songs. What happened in between?
I am part of the generation that was to trust no one over thirty. Now I live in a world where you're not sure if you can trust anyone. I've maneuvered through the official stages of life: child, student, husband, soldier, teacher, father; and am now firmly settled into a final societal status: decrepitude, second childhood, senility, the autumn of life and the golden years (if you like golf, whiny grand-kids and cruises to nowhere). I prefer to be seen as "well preserved." I am not bitter or unhappy, just wondrous at how close I am to dancing with Jesus under that great silver disco ball in the sky.
I can't catalog all life's ups and downs in a short reflection (that's what the memoir is for), but I do have a couple of thoughts. When your mother said wear clean underwear in case you ever get in an accident, she was on to something. How we present to other people determines a lot about how our life will go. One of my father's admonitions was, "There is no excuse for being rude." Being a jerk does not usually enhance your profile or your life. If seventy years has taught me anything, it's that the golden rule is more than a platitude on a plaque hanging on the kitchen wall.
My father did not personify perfection, but he had several admirable qualities. Another of his sayings came from the Brits (use the appropriate accent), "Everything matters, but nothing matters terribly." Or to quote an American parallel, "Don't get your panties in a wad!" Slow and steady, with an understanding that at times life is going to crap on you, gets the job done. You can regularly use angst and histrionics to get to the finish line first, but behind you is nothing but scorched earth, and you have probably peeled a few years off your life. This is why many high achievers drop dead in their forties and fifties. I may have been a turtle, but I left a lot of burned out hares by the side of the road.
Seventy years have shown me that if you don't have a spiritual center, you're just an empty husk. Gotta believe in something larger than yourself. My first thirty years were roiled with questions about how I fit in the world's fabric. Did I exist for any purpose? Was my name any more meaningful than just a scrawl at the bottom of a check? Then the big guy, God, got hold of me. A large dollop of grace and a plan for my life. Huge improvement. I was no longer speeding toward a cliff with brakes that didn't work. Now, not everything turns up lollipops and rainbows, but with the Son of God riding shotgun, the journey makes more sense, now and for eternity.
Another key life lesson: you don't have to become your parents when raising your own kids. If you came from a Beaver Cleaver family, great, but most of us didn't. My parents kept me clothed, fed and housed, but emotional support was parsimoniously given. No hugs; I just took up space. With our kids, the wife and I turned a lot of pages. Plenty of hugs and encouragement. Involvement in their sports and school activities. They may have been little people, but they were people. The big payoff: family dinners without cell phones.
When I was twenty-two, I remember thinking, with wonder, that I might still be alive at the turn of a new century. What would have happened by that point in my life? In the years that followed? What would be my legacy? Well, the word legacy is overvalued. While I hope that I will be kindly thought of by those I leave behind, my physical imprint will be just a pile of dust. And my name won't be on the side of a building or on a park sign, but it will be clearly written in God's Book of Life. So now, I take a deep breath, exhale and carefully mull over much that has been deposited in a seventy year memory bank.