Something I Said?

It happens sometimes at a restaurant where three or four couples are dining together.  I look up from my soup to find myself alone at our table, the others at the salad bar or in the washroom, perhaps.

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Or it could be at a dance, nine or ten of us sharing a table, and I’m suddenly sitting by myself while the others are up dancing, or maybe table-hopping.

The tiresome jokes flow at these moments, naturally.  Some wise guy will ask in a loud voice if I’m dining tonight with all my friends.  Or some other wit will wonder if I did something to offend everyone in my party.

I laugh, of course, perfunctorily—but somewhat puzzled, too—for it is curious that this crops up with me so frequently.  Was it something I said?

It may happen to others, too, I suppose, but hardly ever when I’m around.  And although the jokes are stale from repetition, they do take my mind away from a somewhat more sombre realization—that someday, we know not when, one of us in our gang will, indeed, be left alone.

We’re at an age where many of the things we used to take for granted are likely not in the cards for us anymore.  How many of us will purchase a new house, for example, with a twenty-year mortgage?  Do we really care if the 2040 Olympic Games are held in this city or that?  Are hair transplants or facelifts really such an attractive option now?  How many more new cars will we buy?

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We’re not yet at the stage where we won’t buy green bananas (another old joke) or make plans for some holiday cruise two years from now.  But those days are coming.

Aging is a simple, yet so mysterious a process.  Simple, because it creeps up on us without any conscious intent on our parts.  We start school, we graduate, we marry and become parents.  We raise our children, sadly (or not) bid them adieu when they embark upon the world, and exult in the joys of grandparenthood when they begin their own families.  Eventually, we retire and reach out for new and exciting pastimes.

Granted, it took years for me to do all this, and the work was palpable while I was doing it.  But when it finally hit, my seventy-fifth birthday seemed to have materialized out of nowhere.  Getting there was a simple matter of waiting.

But aging is mysterious, too, because so many odd things transpire.  For instance, although I feel like the same person I always was, my friends are obviously getting older.  Occasionally, when I happen to spy one of them unexpectedly, I see first an old man or woman—only to realize belatedly it’s my friend.  I suspect the same thing might be true in reverse when they have a chance encounter with me.  We’re all too polite to tell each other that, though.

A lyric from the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, seems to capture it:  I don’t remember growing older, when did they?

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A few years ago, I underwent some serious surgeries, not necessarily age-related, and spent several months in follow-up visits with the medical people who treated me.  When reading my files one day, I was quite surprised to discover a letter from a referring physician to a specialist who had treated me.  After the usual introductory paragraph, the letter stated, “This elderly gentleman presents with symptoms congruent with…”

My attention was riveted on those first three words.  I thought I had opened someone else’s file!  Elderly?  Surely not I!  And yet, at the tender age of sixty-four, it was true—at least from the perspective of those young professionals.

And so, here we are, I and all my friends, firmly ensconced in our senior years.  None of us talks morbidly about the inevitable end of our lives; more likely, we’re comparing our golf scores, sharing the latest stock market activity, or showing off pictures of our grandchildren.  We’re a pretty happy lot, all told.

One of us, a retired funeral director, jokes that he used to sign his letters Yours eventually.  “They’re gonna get us in the end,” he says with a wink.

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I do think about the end-stages of life, however.  Like finding oneself left alone at the table in the restaurant, or at the dance.  A close friend from boyhood never got to experience that aloneness, dying before his time just over a year ago, surrounded by family and embraced in the thoughts of his many friends.

My parents, on the other hand, lived well into their nineties—not a guarantee of longevity for me, I grant you, but a pretty good genetic gift.  At the end of her life, my mother had outlived her husband, all her siblings, and all her friends.  Despite the visits from children and grandchildren, I know her final years were painfully lonely.

We cannot know the hour or manner of our own passing, so it’s futile to fret about it.  Yet I occasionally ponder whether it would be best to go first, before everyone else has passed, or be the last one standing (or sitting, or lying down…whatever).  So much of the joy of life comes from those around us, family and friends, and so much would be missing without them.

I’m unable to decide with any certainty which option I’d prefer.  I waver from one to the other, depending on my mood.  Vacillation can be a comfort.  Truth be told, there is no definitive answer to be found; what will be, will be.

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But honestly?  I don’t think I want to be the last one at the table, wondering in vain if it was something I said.

Not a Joiner

The American humorist and actor, Groucho Marx, once declaimed, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

I don’t feel quite as strongly as he did about the issue, but still, I am not a joiner.

Not that I have dozens of invitations arriving weekly from various clubs or organizations, mind you.  In truth, almost all the offers I receive come from parties wanting my money.  There are blandishments from book clubs, reward-card companies, seniors’ affinity groups, travel clubs, and more, all promising the time of my life if I respond to their enticements.

I invariably decline.

I suppose it wasn’t always this way.  I do remember, in my pre-teen days, being a Wolf Cub, part of the Boy Scout movement.  And I still remember the motto we memorized, taken from The Law for the Wolves, a poem by Rudyard Kipling—the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.

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The problem, as I recall, was that I never saw my pack-mates from one weekly meeting to the next, they being from different schools than I.  So I never felt particularly strong, and my ties to the pack were, at best, tenuous.

In my teens—indeed into my mid-fifties—I belonged to several different hockey and ball teams, and I faithfully practiced and played to the best of my abilities.  But these were never local, neighbourhood teams, so I rarely saw my teammates away from the arena or diamond.  I did enjoy the feeling of belonging, and missed it when I gave it all up, but that sense of loss has not prompted me to seek out similar experiences.

During my career, I was a nominal member of professional organizations and federations, but not in any active way.  I attended business meetings as expected, but usually eschewed the social gatherings that followed them.  Consequently, I was largely unknown by most other members.  In fact, when a coveted promotion that came my way was publicly announced, the most commonly-heard reaction from my provincial colleagues was a sincere, “Who?

Throughout these years, it might be said I embodied the timeworn declaration, “He’s not exactly a household name…even in his own household!”

Fortunately for me, the last part of that statement was untrue.  My wife and daughters always welcomed me into the most exclusive club of all, our family.

Now, in my retirement years, my most enjoyable pursuits are solitary by choice:  reading and writing.  I belong to no book clubs, no writers’ workshops, no arts organizations.  It could be assumed, therefore, that I am somewhat isolated and lonely, a curmudgeonly hermit, but such is not the case.  I regularly participate in a variety of group activities with friends and neighbours—golf, snooker, bridge, cycling, dinners, weekend escapes, wintertime travels—all of which come with no strings attached.  There’s no club to join.  People seem happy to see me when I’m there, and unperturbed when I’m absent.

I occasionally wonder if this proclivity for solitude defines me as selfish—uncommitted, unconcerned with the needs of others, aloof and cold.  But honestly, I don’t think so.  In my interactions with others, I try to exemplify the GAGA principle:  go along or go away.  And I certainly harbour no ill-will for those who do enjoy being members of a club or association, part of an inner-circle, safely ensconced in a cocoon of camaraderie.

But I’ve always appreciated the sentiment of the German theologian, Paul Tillich, who wrote:  Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone.  It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone.  And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.

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I am, happily for me, not a joiner.