At the grocery store an older man leaned over to me in the produce section and asked me the difference between the two sale items in the lettuce case. As I was explaining, a young mother passed by, luring a not-quite-toddler back into her cart with mild threats and the promise of a cookie. The old man smiled, and his gaze drifted away for a moment. Then he looked at me with the urgency and alarm of someone who is late for an engagement and has lost his keys.
“At what age do babies walk?” he asked. “How old is that anymore?”
“Usually sometime between ten and eighteen months,” I told him.
He reached over and rested his hand on my arm and nodded assent. Then his eyeballs rolled upward, as if he were checking my answer against something written along his eyebrows. He repeated the word sometime twice. “We raised six kids,” he said, seemingly to himself.
We cannot know anything definitively when it comes to life’s real puzzles. Babies are born when they are ready, not on a due date. They walk when they are ready. They learn to say their first word out of the blue. We are born on a whim and will die on one. Does even God know when you will let go and surrender your last breath? This lack of surety seems to me the most compelling certainty we have.
I watched the old man walk away. He wore lightly soiled plaid shorts with one cuff unraveled, sneakers, white tube socks, and a light-blue shirt so old it had come back into fashion. Six kids. For how long had he felt certain about what age babies were when they started to walk? Was that moment picking discount lettuce the first time he’d realized that he had lost the knowledge he’d once had about babies? Before that day how many times had he walked into a room and thought, What did I come in here for? or started a conversation with “Damn, I forgot what I was going to say”? Had he just dismissed those moments as the regular signs of aging, the equivalent of dropping a pencil but not a whole tray of glassware?
I remember clearly my grandmother’s eyes on the day she became trapped between a world of knowing and a world of confusion. She was sitting at the dining-room table in my mother’s house. My three children were poised above coloring books and other art supplies like tiny soldiers, following the orders of the day. My grandmother, working beside them, colored everything the hues of 1970s appliances, shading a hydrangea walnut brown with a harvest-gold stem. But she enjoyed sitting with the little ones, and they enjoyed her — an adult who seemed just childlike enough not to be a critic.
My grandmother was a product of the Depression. She saved twine. She etched, painted, burned, or marked her initials on everything she owned, to be sure that, if loaned out, it would be returned. Even her sewing scissors had her name scratched into the metal blades. When she colored with the kids, she signed each finished work with a meticulous “M.H.” in the corner. I watched now as her hand, trembling with Parkinson’s, hovered in place above the paper. This woman had worked full time, split shifts, from the 1940s to the 1980s. She’d made her own wedding dress. She’d had a house in Chicago — in the heart of the city, not in some dolled-up suburb. She’d lived alone from the mid-1970s on, managing a home until she was in her eighties. She was not a kind woman. No one would have called her “sweet.” But she was competent and sharp. She was self-taught, an accomplished professional. Now her hand hung midair. It did not move beyond the tremor. Then she turned her face to mine. The fear in her expression spread to me like a contagion, and she struggled to find words:
“I can’t . . . I want to write it . . . to write those things at the bottom. . . .” Finally, in despair, she said, “I don’t know my name.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. I’d never seen her cry, not even at a funeral. At the age of eighty-two she had put on snow cleats and walked through the icy winter streets of Chicago to the grocery. She’d once gotten mugged and had reported the crime on her own. She would never spend a cent on something that wasn’t necessary. She ate cottage cheese and fruit for lunch every day as an “exercise in discipline.” She was the type of grandmother who taught you how to truss a turkey or cut a sewing pattern, not the type who would give you a hug. To hug her would have been to encumber her on her way to perform a task. Like the heavy, silver cat’s-eye glasses she’d worn for at least forty years, her love was a matter of utility. And now her eyes behind those glasses were rheumy, panicked.
I had known her memory was fading, but I wasn’t prepared for this moment. I looked at her with a tilted head and offered a sassy reproach: “Oh, stop toying with me, old woman! I won’t do your work for you, Mary. Put your M.H. at the bottom, and let’s go before I have to put a pillow over your head and put you out of your misery.”
Hearing her name brought relief, and she laughed at my joke. Her hand lowered and drew “M.H.” in avocado green in the corner. But under her breath she was saying her own name over and over to herself, as if trying to will it into permanence.
There is no calendar for life’s generosity or its callousness. Sometimes it feels as if the universe were for you or against you, but the truth is that the good news is the same as the bad news: none of it is personal. The bookstore is filled with panaceas for this disease called living, but there is no cure. Life is terminal. The self-help authors offer up markers or clues, but there is no real help. All you can do is wait for things to happen: for babies to be born, for people to die. Life daily opens her fickle hand to present you with a flower or to slap you.
I am talking on the phone with my dear friend Peter when he says he will soon be sixty-five. His age shocks me, and I hope he does not hear it in my voice. I always think of him as he was when I met him. He was in his early forties then. His children were still children. He was almost a young man himself. Two decades or so later he remains Peter, eternally Peter. And yet. He is sixty-five. This quietly terrifies me. If Peter is sixty-five, then in nineteen years I will be sixty-five, and he will be almost eighty-five. We will not be able to pretend that eighty-five is not old. We will not be able to joke about the sand in the hourglass running out, because it will be true.
I remember a conversation I had with Peter when he was in his late forties, like I am now. His last child was a sophomore in high school. Peter was in a serious relationship (he is with the same woman today), but there was a hollowness in his voice. “One day,” he said, “you look around, and you’re in the sandbox all by yourself. Your children leave long before they leave.” All the friendly warnings and parenting books cannot prepare you for this, and if you have not yet experienced it, you will still believe in your heart that you are too close to your son or daughter for it to happen to you. You will silently nod to your friends while considering yourself exempt.
The date of this event is not on the calendar like other milestones: prom, college, turning twenty-one. But the day will come, and that is a hell of a thing. It’s like knowing you will die but assuming it will be many years from now, in your sleep, and not like most deaths — either violent and too soon or protracted and debilitating, as old age becomes a prison sentence. Only when it happens will you know.
Those of us who’ve bonded with our children the most perhaps cling hardest to the hope that they will return to us in a new way, even when the evidence is all around that the nicest of parents get left behind too. Here is a person you spoke to dozens of times a day, a person you watched unfold, a person you adored, and now she will yank up her roots and drag her rose somewhere else to be admired, cloaking it from you when you try to see it, saving it for her new love: herself. You do not know if she will ever return. The more confidence and self-reliance you have instilled in her, the more independent and successful she will become — and the more likely she will be not to need you anymore.
Perhaps it’s true that God knows the hour and the day of your death. I can’t say. But I tend to think that God, if he exists at all, doesn’t care. What kind of person wants a puppeteer God stringing you along, or a Santa Claus God insisting you make wish lists of gifts you may or may not get? Even a clockmaker God is nonsense to me. What sort of deity winds up the machine and then takes a bow? How could we be accountable for lust or lying or even murder when those desires were built into us by a cruel machinist? But who am I to know the mind of God? I can think of God only in the way that I think of a parent. Does God watch me sleep even when I’m an adult and want to touch my feet or kiss my forehead? Does God cry in the shower so we won’t see him weep when we are dismissive of his favors or forget his birthday? Does God know the day we will turn and walk away? Is his pain offset by an omnipotent awareness that we will come back, or is it haunted by the knowledge that we never will?