On Aging (30 Years at Once)

One of my favorite birthday card greetings reads, “Youth is fleeting but immaturity lasts forever!”. This really resonates with me. Although I turn fifty next year, to some extent, I still feel like a kid. Every once in a while, I catch myself thinking about something that I’d like to do in the future and I say to myself, “I’ll do it when I grow up.”

I’ll go out on a limb here and venture that this permanent adolescense is a mostly male thing. Certainly, girls seem to mature quickly whereas “boys will be boys” and it’s only the price of toys that changes. I’ve known 20 year old women with comprehensive life plans and 40 year old men without a clue.

Recently, however, I’ve felt myself getting older — let me explain why. No, it’s not the gray hair, the paunch or the wrinkles. It’s not that I have one kid in college and another driving. It’s not that the I get the creeps when I see Hamilton Ford making out with Anne Heche in Seven Days and Seven Nights. It’s the sense that I’m finally an adult.

As a child, my world was controlled by my parents. I relied on them for my basic necessities as well as other things like transportation, advice and spending money. While I argued often with my father about the difference between age and wisdom, I recognize now how much I took for granted that he and my mother would take care of me. I knew that if I got into trouble or needed anything that I could rely on them to help me out.

When I went off to college, I learned to take care of myself, but still relied on my parents for the tuition bill. Even after graduating and getting a good job, I remember getting help from my parents to buy my first house.

Years later, having been very lucky with my timing in the high tech industry, I no longer relied on my parents for any financial reason (ultimately, I would help them buy a house). Nevertheless, I still talked to my parents about important decisions and knew they would at least listen and be supportive. Even when I was disagreeing with my father, I realize that he was, minimally, providing a foil that helped me think things through more clearly.

Beyond my parents, even though I was in my 20’s or 30’s, I still found myself deferring to older co-workers and admiring their experience, knowledge and their ease at dealing with life’s problems.

When I turned 40, some significant things happened. First, my father became increasingly senile and increasingly needed my help with things. Effectively, we switched places. The most dominant male in my life suddently became dependent on me. Second, I realized that I was no longer intimidated by anyone, that I had become the person to whom others looked for help and advice. In my work and personal life, I could deal with any situation that I encountered.

I think that I finally became an adult when my father died in 2001. At that point, not only did I lose my instinctual protector, I also took on the role of patriarch. Now, in the modern nuclear family, this isn’t the job it used to be. I don’t feel personally responsible for cousins, aunts, uncles and their step-counterparts. Even if my domain is limited to my immediate family (and, to some extent, my wife’s), however, I still feel the weight of my responsibility.

Fortunately, my patriarchical duties are still easy to carry out. I have to make sure that my mother is healthy, happy and comfortable (increasingly difficult now that she’s 88). I have to assure that my kids get into and/or survive college (I have one in college and another that’s a junior in high school). I have to make sure that our family’s finances are sound enough to do the things we want to do.

Nevertheless, this is no job for a child. When you realize that people are looking to you for protection and that you have no one else to turn to, it ages you immediately.