I didn’t know what to expect, only that I’d dreaded the day for a decade or more, dreaded it with a passion that deepened with each heartbeat so that even as the minutes ran the clock and the dawn crept in no different than any other dawn in the last few millennia I was all but ready to cede defeat, to throw in the proverbial towel and relinquish myself to senility. And then didn’t, because an altogether odd thing happened, or didn’t.
The sequence of events is still somewhat murky. It’s like trying to assemble a puzzle with half the pieces missing and the others strays, orphans and offspring of other, unrelated puzzles, the disparate conglomeration virtually indecipherable. Nor does it help that their relationship to one another, especially in the before-events leading up to the fated day when every hellish thing I’d anticipated dissipated like ground fog in the morning sun, seem so random and tenuous. Because, to tell the honest truth, nothing happened. Though I’d sat at my desk for hours as the last stars paled in the east, waiting for an epiphany or enlightenment or my doom, waiting for whatever might come, whatever transformation that would change me into another form of being, what happened was what always happened: the eastern horizon lightened, the wooded meander of Juganine Creek materialized from the gloom, the towering grain elevator caught the first sunbeam and glowed like a torch.
And when I looked in the mirror the face staring back was virtually unchanged other than the swelling around the bloodshot eyes. Obviously, pulling the big clumps of ragweed on the final day of my 59th year hadn’t been the smartest move, perhaps even a psychological attempt at sabotage. The mind is a curious thing, and mine the most curioustest of all. That I continually amaze myself with ridiculously bad choices certainly dispels any notion that age dispenses wisdom.
“It is nearly impossible to surprise ourselves,” Jim Harrison wrote, but at that moment I was stunned. I was also 60 years old, and looked and felt exactly as I had when I was in my fifties. The world hadn’t ended, the stars had not fallen from the sky, I hadn’t shrunken to a wizened old geezer hunched over a cane. There was, in fact, nothing to lament, no clothes to rend, no sackcloth and ashes to don. I was 60. Big deal.
I felt a little silly. Embarrassed, even. I studied the reflected face for signs and portends but saw only a slowly dawning look of comprehension and the barest trace of a smile.
“Good grief,” the face said.
Then: “Now what?”
I recalled the afternoon of the eve of my dreaded birthday, when I mowed the lawn in 95-degree heat more as a way of expending energy and a vain attempt to dull my brain, a wholly unfulfilled expectation as it instead roamed the universe and the wild prairie surrounding our place at the end of a dead-end street and drew connections of which some were warranted and others flimsy at best. The dark green of the poison ivy in the thicket was slowly changing to scarlet, the narrow leaves of the locusts were wan and brittle, migrating dragonflies darted above the alfalfa field, and overhead a flotilla of nightjars made their way southward; the sun was lower than it had a right to be, catching me off guard as it always catches me off guard, slanting low and hard. All about me life was waning, and my life waning, too. The world, my days, sliding into an uncertain autumn.
Oh, the anguish and keening, the gnashing of teeth, the wailing, the anxiety leading up to this moment! And now this sudden, inexplicable normality, this unremarkably ordinary ordinary morning.
Now what? In perspective it’s not my 60th birthday, it’s my 21,914th day on earth. Tomorrow will be my 21,915th day. Nothing more. But every day is a gift.
And yet I couldn’t help but sense that an invisible boundary had been crossed. The days are shorter than we can imagine, Joel Sartore said. We have less time than we think. Now is not the time for lamentation but for renewal, for making every day count. Sure, the birds are leaving for their southbound migrations and the nights are getting longer, but lately we’ve had a flock of turkeys hanging out in the yard, young and old alike, and one evening last week my headlights swept the yard to find a pair of white-speckled fawns grazing on the lawn. Our grandson, Oliver, turned one year old. I am not the man I was but a shadow lies upon me. The days are stacked against us, Harrison wrote. And yet life doesn’t stop nor hesitate, it cannot stutter or stumble or skip. There are days and weeks and years to come. This life, this place, is too beautiful for despair. It’s a place to live, not drown. Sixty is nothing. My best days are ahead.