I’m turning 53 this coming Saturday—a bigger milestone in my life than in most, because my mother died at 52.
“So young!” I remember all the grown-ups saying at her funeral, and of course I understood what they meant. But to a 21-year-old, 52 sounds like garbage time, in the regular-season NBA game of life.
Also mitigating the tragedy of her early death in my mind was her misery—unremitting bipolar depression and addiction issues that somehow seemed to get worse with every cycle, more meaningless as she got older.
Maybe her death was a merciful, in the end.
But golly, if I don’t make it until Saturday, I hope no one says that about me.
Though I must admit, I am trying to organize the next few years in a way I’ve never consciously had to do before. Maybe like you: My twenties were desperate, my thirties were ambitious, my forties determined. As my daughter goes off to college this fall, and my place in the work world feels as established as I need or even want it to be—what word will describe this decade, and the next?
There’s no blueprint from my mother, obviously. And come to think of it, little from my father. As part of his second set of children, I was only seven when my dad turned 53 (and my sister was four). So he was in an entirely different situation.
I remember when my wife was about to have a baby. We both agreed that we could imagine the first two weeks of that life—the midnight feedings and lullabies, the diaper changes—but that after that first fortnight, the future vista was just blank.
That’s kind of how I feel about the future now. I know what I’m going to do: I’ve got a company to run, a community to tend and a pretty inexhaustible subject to study. I’ve got a rich family and social life, and no plans to slip away in a box car. I play baseball on summer Sundays, and to the extent COVID is vanquished, I hope to get back to playing indoor tennis leagues, in the winter. And there are books to read. And maybe, still to write.
If my luck holds out, there will also be adventures. That’s the one thing every phase of my lucky life has had in common—dozens and dozens of road trips, in cars and on motorcycles; sailing trips; camping trips and golf trips, plane trips and train trips, on every continent but Antarctica.
Somehow, I’ve always found time and money, so maybe I always will. But now the question is: What’s the theme? (Or more rudely: What’s the point?)
I always reacted with existential despair to people who worked their whole lives to be able to afford to “travel.” What good is it to see Paris—or Taos, New Mexico, for that matter—at the end of your life? (My dad felt this way, too, when a girlfriend dragged his 80-year-old self to Europe. “I already toured Europe,” he grumbled. “In 1944.”)
I want there to be a purpose to my movement, boy. Not just sights to see, but something to discover. Something to still become. And a meaningful story to tell to other people. Yes, coming-of-age tales get harder to come by, the higher your age. But the changing nature of the story doesn’t obviate the need for a plot.
When I was first riding a motorcycle, my wife asked me: “If you crash that thing, can I tell people you died doing what you loved?” I told her that she could tell people anything she liked, but the truth was, the thing I mostly loved to do was living!
And living, to me, means striving toward some profound thing, making something, doing something big or difficult. I think that runs in the family, too. My community-pillar, steel-executive grandfather used to ask my dad every day he came home from elementary school, “Did you strike a blow today, Tom?” GaGa reluctantly retired to Florida and drank himself to death in about five years; Old Grandad whiskey hidden in the toilet tank. It is entirely un-mysterious to me why that happened.
But I find myself in a different circumstance than any of those ancestors: My skills are more transferable than my grandfather’s. My family obligations are waning sooner than my father’s. And I am not dying of sadness, like my mother.
It feels a little like that first time I took the car, all by yourself, that passenger seat looking so shockingly empty. I could go anywhere. But where?
So if I wreck my motorcycle now—or however, and whenever I die—the question I hope people ask is: “Where was he headed, and why?”