Advice for Young People
When I was a youngster my grandmother offered this pearl of wisdom: “Don’t get old.” Ha ha, funny, Grandma. Because what choice do you have, right? She smiled her knowing smile as she said it, and I laughed at the irony, or the paradox, whatever it was, but then her smile evaporated, and her eyes bore into mine. “No, I’m serious,” she said. “Don’t get old.”
It was a memorable moment. I guess that’s why I remember it. As an immature kid, most serious things would devolve into jokes, but this time the opposite happened; a joke grew into a scary monster.
I couldn’t figure it out. Was Grandma recommending I die young? Was Grandma saying I was a good boy, like in Billy Joel’s celebratory song Only the Good Die Young? Would all be well if I’d just hurry up and die?
Time passed and I didn’t die. I continued to wonder. Maybe “Don’t get old” was a broad statement, not directed strictly at me. Maybe she meant no one should get old, or maybe only she should get old. Did Grandma want to keep out the competition? She was the only old person around at the time and I wondered if maybe she was concerned other old people may move in on her territory.
Such ponderances rattled around the Ponderosa of my maturing brain as I galloped my way toward becoming a grown up. The burdens of responsibility mounted like a fat man on a once trusted steed. Fun became a word no one used anymore. Work took over. My group of friends dispersed across the country to pursue the American Dream, and lines of disappointment dug into our faces like World War I trenches.
“Don’t get old.” Grandma’s voice echoed through the public toilet stall of my broken optimism and sent a shudder from my bloodshot eyeballs down to my stagnant bowels and back up again to the stale coffee taste in my mouth. The standard bargain had been made: decent pay for a steady job in a cubicle as secure as a moist cardboard box. And the water was rising. Incrementally. One disgusting daily commute at a time.
Every sardine on the train was me, and I, them. Each of us was uniquely grotesque in outward appearance, but inside we were identically wretched. It wasn’t sympathy or empathy we felt for one another, it was the abject poverty of resignation, the numbness of apathy. No one gave a dime to the one-legged homeless man hobbling through the car. He was no worse off than any of us.
At home, there was more uphill climbing to be done. Chores, bills, taxes. And the kids. I smiled as my daughter Joy ran up to me with as giant a hug as a five-year-old can muster. I caught her embrace as a catcher’s mitt snags a fastball and I swirled her around as she giggled. My face grew a twisted smile of recognition as I gently released her to the sofa. Joy. Such a cruel name. It wouldn’t be many years before that bitter irony would dawn on her. My other daughter, Dawn, was, at seven years old, already a setting sun.
“Don’t get old” I thought to myself as I watched the kids plaster themselves to the television. “It’s best to distract them from the sinking ship” I reasoned. Finding myself staring at the beaming image of my bride on the Holocaust remembrance-like photo-wall above the TV, I wondered if I’d be able to pick her out of a crowd. A night-shift nurse shares a bed with her husband, but never at the same time. There would be no more children with hopeful names.
After I tucked the children into bed, I warmed myself in front of the fire. Yes, the TV, the modern-day hearth, fueled by a world ablaze with breaking news. Some talking head was saying we need a growing population to sustain a healthy economy. I drifted off, thinking of how we pay for Medicare and Social Security in this country.
There’s not a big vault somewhere with all the money the government regularly shears from my salary like wool from a sheep, waiting to be dispensed to me when I retire. No! My today-money goes straight to today’s elderly! THAT’S why Grandma said, “Don’t get old”! Because with today’s low birth rates, by the time I get old there won’t be enough working young people’s salaries to shear to pay for my Medicare and Social Security! We, the soon-to-be old people, will be left out in the cold! “I’ll have to eat cat food!” I screamed.
“I see it all now,” I said, darkly, as I nervously wrung my hands. “That’s why there’s Covid!” The reality of the conspiracy was percolating into the depleted soil of my malnourished mind. “The young people want us old folks to die, so they won’t have to feed us!” THAT is the meaning of my grandmother’s cryptic warning, “Don’t get old”!
I looked up from my crazed flailing and saw my two frightened children, clutching one another and staring at me. “Daddy? Are you crazy?” asked Joy from behind flowing tears. Jolted back to the present moment, I grabbed and hugged them tight and reassured them, insisting “No, no, no! Daddy’s not crazy!” I hugged them like we were going down together on the Titanic and repeated, like a sedative mantra, “Don’t get old. Don’t get old. Don’t get old….”