On our way home from the library in Champaign, Illinois where I was helping to care for my grandson, Harry began to make up a song. From the back seat of the car his almost three-year-old voice drifted up to where Jo, his mother and I were sitting. We turned to each other as it dawned on us that he was making up a song about his Grandma Julie and his Pops, my husband Maury. I am not sure whether it was the sweet wisp of his voice or the slight sadness in it, but I felt a touch of melancholy as I listened: “Pops and Grandma Julie comin’ soon. Pops and Julie coming to stay. Pops and Grandma Julie stay all day. Poppa come too.” It may have been that I was leaving the next day or that his Poppa, my son Aaron, had been away in Houston for a month and he missed him or that his voice still seemed so fragile and sweet, but I found myself aching at the ephemeral quality of my life with this child.
Later, he and I went for a long walk while Jo went to a yoga class. Of all the things we did this was the best part of my week-long visit. It was unorganized, unscripted and indefinite. We would go in when he decided to walk back to the apartment complex. Then there would be books and a nap. While we were outside, though, he would determine the schedule. He remarked on the beautiful trees, the yellow dandelions, the purple flowers. He sang to himself. He dawdled like his father used to do by the ocean at the same age. Then, forty years ago, a walk that usually took five minutes from a quiet surf beach to the house above could take a half hour. Aaron would examine each shell or bayberry or mound of sand, wander into scrub pine to sit in the shade, turn to stare at the spread of glittering water below him. He would sing, make up songs about jeeps he had been riding in, about the kite his grandfather had put up the day before. He would sing about seagulls, or driftwood houses. And we would take our time.
Maybe it was the way this time resonated with Harry’s unplanned afternoon, or maybe it was the warmth of the sun just as we chanced to arrive in the meadow and playground that day, but the sadness I felt in the car came full force later as Harry slept on the double bed in his parents’ room where we had read stories together. It came because I am sixty- eight years old and, in contrast to those days with Aaron, I do not see the broad expanse of days I saw then. I do not have the luxury of imagining visits to this grandson at his college or future summers when he might stop by Minneapolis on a road trip with a friend before beginning his first job in California or Boston. There is in me a sense of life’s foreshortening; along with a hope that I will see twenty more years, when indeed I would see Harry begin his young manhood. Yet tucked in the shadows, is the understanding that in very slight yet persistent ways, this body is failing. And at every small change, each new prescription for glasses or an upgrade in the power of my hearing aids, I register somewhere in my consciousness the implications.
At the same time this awareness accompanies me, providing that urgency to see things, to travel while I can enjoy it, to add my voice in another book or article to the fight against racism, it also provides an unfathomable delight in moments, in separate mornings of coffee and the paper, the email from a young woman written at midnight who has finished my book and wants me to know how it has helped her, the Skype with Harry who guffaws at Maury and my antics in front of that tiny camera.
And so, perhaps, this is the juxtaposition we live with when we age: the understanding of our luck to have health and energy and work in our late sixties, along with the intense desire to feel our future is limitless, to plan for our grandson’s career, our own great painting that will change the way others will look at the world. Having survived cancer ten years ago, I am not unaware that disease or accident can come at any time in a life. So I count my blessings, to have arrived at this point, now, bending to hear what a student says, walking to keep up with my son along Chicago streets. I am aware of how fragile all this is. But I am greedy some days, I want more. I add twenty years to my present age and agree with myself that I would be satisfied to have that much time. After all Harry would be finished with college and on his way.
Perhaps this is the hope of those of us who have arrived where we are, the chance to experience the whole of our grandson’s, our niece’s, our nephew’s, beginning. Perhaps it is the way we are able to enjoy those single moments, to settle for a sweet simplicity, while at the same time planning for the complexity of the future. And when Harry sings about us all coming in his door, we get to have that sadness that is real, and the desire for many more years: the slender, tenuous and beautiful hope of the elderly.