They Were Young Once
Michael K. Shaub, July 10th, 2019
My wife and I were walking up from the beach together, past a house that had a pickup truck whose bass speakers were sufficient to physically rattle the windows of our house across the street. I looked over at the truck, and an older man (and, by that, I mean younger than me) shouted at his daughter to turn the music down out of consideration for us. Her immediate reply to him before complying was, “They were young once!”
Indeed they were. Once they held hands and talked of a future together. He whispered in her ear and she giggled and pulled away, only to have him gently grab her arm and pull her back to him. He looked in those clear blue eyes and felt his heart fly away to places he never knew existed. He wooed her as a college student and married her right after. They spent restless nights sleeping in an unairconditioned house with a box fan whirring in a window and a baby in the next room. They spent a dozen years living in more than that many homes, stopping and starting a career in fits and spurts until a Ph.D. program spat out a professor equipped with an inquisitive mind, two more kids and that same blue-eyed girl. Those three kids grew to five, and the seasons flew by, hardly noticed. Life for them was a continuum, pulsing from one stage to another until all those kids were gone and the grandkids had long since begun arriving.
Only then did it begin to occur to them that they might be growing old. That they—that he—might be on the backside of his usefulness. He noticed that more of his questions were “why” and fewer of them were “how.” It was not that he just didn’t remember as much; he didn’t understand as much. Because as you get older, while still in the continuing desperate pursuit of those things you never comprehended, you realize that you are quickly being caught from behind by those things that you never knew to ask about, as well as those things you no longer understand. Those deep consternations reflect themselves not just in your specific discipline or expertise, but in music and art and culture and religion. They are accelerated by changes in technology, but they are not a result of it. All generations have faced this inevitable passage in their own ways.
I sit on the cusp of freedom and despair. My life today is the opportunity to finish strong, to fulfill many of my hopes and to see so many good things happen in the lives of those I love. It is the chance to pass the baton on to the next generation, which has already begun accelerating in the exchange lane. In fact, they are quite quickly matching my speed, which is necessary for a successful handoff.
But it is also a recognition that my contribution, my leg of the race, is reaching its end. I am still running hard, and I have to in order to keep up with them. But not for long.
There is a reason I am not running the anchor leg, and that is because I am not the fastest runner. But I have done my best on my leg. I am free to enjoy, in the not too distant future, the rest of the race from the infield. The despair comes in knowing that soon, all that will be left for me to do is cheer.
My Dad turns 99 this month. In his room hangs the picture of a confident 26-year-old, with his civilian arms wrapped around my Mom’s waist after having survived both the worst of the Pacific War and two years apart from her. The whole world lies before them—like us, a return to school, five kids, and a career of the mind. They were young once. Today, he wonders where she has gone.
The pickup truck just pulled back into the neighbor’s driveway, the speakers booming life, the future, possibilities. The guy on the porch across the street from that pickup truck watches, reflecting on what it is to have meaning and confidence without youth. He knows deep in his heart that he is one of the lucky ones, still stimulated by a meaningful job that includes the opportunity to teach, and to be influenced by, a remarkable group of college students who continue to make him feel young. And to still be carried away by those gorgeous blue eyes not just to unseen places, but to memories built together, full of whimsy and wonder.
They were young once. And, to be honest, perhaps more often than you think, they still are. The immeasurable gift of a lifetime together is hard to top, even by the highest highs of youth.
But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to go back and try.