It seemed like just a short time ago that I threw a surprise 50th birthday party for a close friend. He wasn’t impressed because he never liked to celebrate birthdays, and turning 50 was more than he wanted to face. But he played along, a good sport, and when it was over got back to his normal life.
I thought of him the other day when I was sitting at my desk in a hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon. He loves England, was thrilled when he learned I’d be touring the country mostly by train for two weeks. He wanted to hear everything about my trip and I’d already called him a couple times to share experiences in London I knew he’d appreciate: having a drink in St. Stephen’s Tavern, Winston Churchill’s favorite bar; finding the Duke of Wellington’s former office in the Horse Guards Building in Whitehall; pausing outside Banqueting House where King Charles I was executed in 1649 when Oliver Cromwell seized power; climbing to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral to look out over London from the heart of the old city.
I thought of him because I discovered something in my hotel room that told me he isn’t 50 anymore. In fact, he’ll be turning 65 in a couple of weeks. Where did those 15 years go?
Once a friend told me she was going to get a cat, but she was being very picky because, at 35, she knew the cat she chose would be with her until she was 50. Fifty! Shudder. Can you imagine, me, 50? she asked.
At the time I couldn’t imagine her being 50 years old. But it’s easier now.
That night in Stratford I was a wreck after a relentless drive from York to Belvoir Castle near Sherwood Forest, then on to Stratford in the dark after many hours of stop-and-go traffic, lashing rain, driving on the left side of the road, and peering through low-riding reading glasses at the map as I watched over their rims for road signs and errant vehicles. I have never been happier to get rid of a rental car in my life. Tremendously relieved to be in the hotel room, sitting at the desk in something of a stupor, I glanced in the mirror and saw my father. What was he doing here? It took about two heartbeats to realize that weary face staring back at me had aged almost beyond recognition, and my youthful glow had jumped a generation.
Maybe it was the reading glasses, maybe the fatigue in my eyes. But there was no mistaking it: I resembled my father more than I wanted to admit, and my father isn’t young anymore.
The next day I took the train to Oxford and wandered around the famous university town. On the way back at the end of the day, passengers crowded the train. I walked down the aisle seeing the seats filling up ahead of me, and finally stopped near a man sitting in the aisle seat with the window seat occupied by his bags and coat. A stack of books teetered on his lap. Reading glasses perched on his nose. His hawk-like profile was carved in stone, his gaze glued to the pages of a book, eyes scrupulously avoiding me. I was the looming presence about to ruin his day, and he would have nothing of it.
I hesitated, considered, then moved along, knowing I’d be transferring to another train in 20 minutes. No need to disturb a fellow so determined to hoard his space.
A few steps on I saw that all other seats were filled and I’d have to stand. Just then a man in his twenties bolted from his seat. “Here, sit down,” he said.
“Please sit down. You may have this seat.”
I looked over my shoulder. I stood alone. He stepped aside and motioned to the seat, smiled.
“No, it’s okay,” I said.
“Please sit,” he insisted.
Then I laughed. Now this was a first. I’m usually the guy who gives up seats to old folks and pregnant women. He didn’t see the same person I imagined myself to be. He saw an elder who deserved a seat on the crowded train, an old fellow for whom he would relinquish his place.
“Thank you,” I said, and sat down. “I’ll only be on the train a short time so you’ll get your seat back.”
He just smiled. No need to explain, he’d happily stand.
At the next stop the woman sitting next to me got off, so I slid over to the window and the man did get his seat back, sooner than expected. We rode on through the night, both content with our places on the train. Back home in San Francisco, my wife had just left my two young daughters at school. My friend approaching 65 was asleep, dreaming of London or Paris or Rome. My father was resting uncomfortably in Arizona, hoping the medication would deaden the pain of a malady that will be with him until he moves on to whatever comes next. The other passengers silently read their newspapers and books, swaying with the rhythm of the train, heading home at the end of another day. I rode on gazing out the window into the darkness, knowing that age 65 was miles away for me, but every click of the wheels on the tracks was taking me closer.
Postscript: My father passed away on April 22, seven weeks after this trip.