Closing in on fifty-three, there is likely more life behind me than there is ahead of me. There are many things left to accomplish, of course, so before anyone decides to lecture me about when Grandma Moses started painting, let me state clearly that I am not just watching the world go by. I do, however, spend more time than I used to in quiet contemplation, making it appear that I am just watching the world go by.
The introspective young person wonders about their place in the world. What will their role be? At some point the answer, for good or ill, will be unfolded for all to see. For much of our adult lives, we are too busy with careers and lovers and children and home ownership or any number of other distractions to even pause and ask, ‘Am I on the right track?’ I wonder how many of us have the guts to change course when we don’t like the answer to that question.
Regrets, I’ve had a few, as Paul Anka wrote, but then again, too few to mention. I know that one thing leads to another and one small deviation could have changed where I ended up. That place is a happy one, a life that has been filled with so much more joy than pain. So many smiles, so much laughter…I don’t ask myself, ‘Is that all there is?’ because I wonder…had there been more, could I have handled it?
Naturally, your children are a legacy, but in their early twenties, they are still largely unwritten books, a delicious read for another day. So the search for answers goes inward…Did I do anything that made a difference? It’s a big question and no one else’s opinion matters. I’ve learned that even vanity doesn’t feed a favorable outcome. You can only bullshit yourself up to a point.
If you had a clear goal as a young person and accomplished it, it might be easier. But how many of us do that? We came up in a time where we were told we would likely work at five or six different jobs in our adult lives, certainly making it a challenge to derive an identity from our professions. I’ve written millions of words and performed for thousands of people, but does anyone remember an ‘aha’ moment, when they were reading one of my stories? Was someone so moved by a theatre performance that they decided that they were going to take an unanticipated giant leap?
The thing is, the question is not definitively answerable. If you didn’t treat your family like shit, when you’re gone they’ll likely say, ‘He was a good Son/Brother/Husband/Dad/Uncle.’ It’s a statement that speaks of a lack of badness…which doesn’t make it goodness.
It seems crazy when you think about it. A man that mops your floors and cleans your bathroom wonders if he’s leaving anything behind other than some sparkling grout. Working as a custodian in a library is never going to be a job I love, but I love what it has done for my family and I adore the people I work with. They are smart, funny and they get ALL the jokes. Many of the patrons are priceless people. When I walk through the youth department, I enjoy seeing the kids grow up before my eyes.
One of those kids is Gabriel. I saw him take his first steps. I don’t know what his first words were, but his first words to me were “Bye-bye.” Lots of the children are fascinated by anything on wheels and I am often pushing such a vehicle. Yet the charm fades in a couple of weeks, maybe a couple of months…but not for Gabriel. One day, when he saw me coming towards him, all he could do was point and squeal. I referred to the shrill sound as ‘Gabriel’s Trumpet’ whenever I heard him coming.
It wasn’t long before those first steps started coming faster and faster. He would make a beeline for me as soon as he heard the squeaky wheels approaching. His mother derailed his progress in the beginning, but was ultimately powerless to stop him. When she couldn’t catch him anymore, I found myself playing goalie, hoping to keep him from touching my germy cart or blue jeans. I waved my arms in front of me to slow his progress, but Gabriel wasn’t having it. He decided hopping into my arms was the next best thing. It wasn’t what I was planning on, but it was better than the alternative. I picked him up, just as I had my own children.
He studied my face, touching the wrinkles around my eyes, the bristle of my moustache and short haircut. I took in his smooth coffee-colored complexion and dark eyes. He was not quite two, yet had the face of an old man. I thought he was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. I didn’t honestly expect it to happen again, but it did the next day and then the week after that. One day, he squeezed my neck. Another day, apparently a tough one, he just put his head on my shoulder for a moment.
Over a few months, we developed a routine where he would run right at me when I entered the youth department. I would scoop him up and carry him as I pushed my cart one-handed to my destination (about thirty feet). Then, I put him down and walked him back to his mother. I would wave bye-bye, he would wave and say the words in return, and then both of us went on with our lives.
It goes on to this day. Sitting in the early evening shade of my life, I believe more than ever that the single flutter of a butterfly’s wing changes legions. I was talking with friends last week about a documentary I had seen about dogs. It asserted that the first wolf that ever took food from a human hand (for there was surely one) experienced a change in brain chemistry because of the experience. Every wolf in that family lineage was a recipient of this new way of thinking about their relation to humans. Maybe I was put on this Earth to influence a little boy to like old men with white moustaches. Maybe he was put here to tell me to mellow the hell out.
I don’t know what the truth is. But as I watch a butterfly meander its way through my wife’s garden, I know I wouldn’t change anything if I could. As the Monarch’s silken wings achieve flight, I am glad we are all here, perhaps for just a little while, but as part of a mural that’s meaning is not yet known, and will remain forever untitled.
For my soul-searching questions, that is all the answers I need. Bye-bye.