One thing I thought I might get right when I was growing up was a relationship. I’m the child of a mother who had two husbands and a man who had three failed marriages – the third ended after 38 years, when my stepmother died, but I think it’s fair to say it had gone south after the first 10 years or so. As a professional observer, I once thought I’d seen the way to not muck it all up. But my own two serious relationships – which had their definite high points, but still failed to flourish – have, in the past, raised my doubts as to my ability to follow through on this goal.
Now, I’m a 50-year-old man taking care of his 87-year-old father, still hoping for the relationship of which every 17-year-old dreams. But, let me tell you, it’s hard to feel sexy when death – or its first cousin, once removed, old age – is staring you in the face every day. I find myself feeling a whole lot of “why bother” these days. I’m a person who tends to look at the end game, or at least consider the ways any particular game might end, and here’s what I see right now: Me, or my partner, alone after the other’s death, or doing for the other what I’m doing for Dad right now.
This realization has, for a while, had me re-thinking my relationship goal. Well, this and the steady calcification of my single ways into a shell so hard that blasting caps may be required for an interpersonal breakthrough to take place. It’s easy to place the blame on Dad, or, at least the presence of Dad – “Sorry, but I’ve got to be home to dress my father’s toe wound” isn’t really a response to make a heart beat faster, should a goodnight kiss become something more intentional. But my own age and experience also have made me wary, and encouraged a not-so-helpful tendency to think in terms of “why?”, instead of, just, “well, why not?” In short, I think I’ve become old at heart.
This realization has me beginning to feel a need to shift my focus away from the end, and more on the game, itself. Wedding vows may cast an emphasis on the “ever after,” but, in middle age, I’m beginning to think a more realistic concentration on present emotion may be a better tactic for making a relationship work. When you’re 25, “for now, and as long as we both shall live,” probably ends at a mortgage signing or the maternity ward – can you really visualize the enormity of life and death and hospice and toe-wound dressing you might face 60 years later? No, your imagination at that age just can’t conceive of more than a 10- to 15-year timeframe. Once you hit 50 (or earlier, if life gives you the experience of seeing life to its end), the whole sickness-and-health roll of the dice just starts seeming a bit, well, dicier. But why should that deprive us of the hope youth grants – of a love everlasting?
I guess it comes down to the fact that any relationship really depends on a continuing leap of faith – and maybe faith becomes harder to achieve when it’s been tested by reality, and when experience has taught us the pain that reality can cause. Our hearts become older, both physically and emotionally. So, when we say someone is “young at heart,” maybe what we really are saying is that this person has gained the ability to maintain that faith, not in ignorance of potential pain – because no one reaches a certain age without experiencing loss and its emotional results – but in spite of it.
So faith, in this situation, becomes a time machine, one that can make our old hearts young again. My father talks to his lady-friend, Lois, who lives back in St. Louis, at least once or twice a week. She’s got a pacemaker and a defibrillator and he’s got heart, kidney, lung and circulatory issues. But when he picks up her calls, he’s back on the dance floor, with Benny Goodman swinging on the stage. At that moment, faith in the happiness that relationship is bringing him, even with a 1,200-mile separation, makes his heart is decades younger than mine. I just hope, among whatever else I might inherit once he passes, is the key my father’s always carried to his time machine of faith.