Pre-dawn, and I am in my bathroom. I “clean up,” and I quietly get dressed. I don’t want to wake Julie, so I am in complete stealth mode. I pull up my socks and my iPhone pings, “Are you still sleeping?” Tom was 5 minutes early, and his white Ford Flex is idling outside the front of the house. I type, “I have to put my shoes on. I’ll be out in a minute.” I creep downstairs, put on my Danby’s, grab my bag, and sneak out the door. The house is still sleeping, mission accomplished.
Tom was cheerful, but I was still half-asleep. He hands me a large Dunkin Donuts coffee, and I take a sip. “It is going to be a beautiful day,” he says, looking at me. I nod, thankful that the caffeine is starting to work its magic. Without willing it, my brain starts to imagine the caffeine blocking my adenosine receptors and the resultant cascading impact on various neurotransmitters. “Damn,” I think, “Why does my mind always have to be cluttered with a thousand useless thoughts? Why can’t I just enjoy a tiny bit of quiet time?” I push the biochemical pathway out of my mind, but other ideas start to run in the background. Finally, I give up and focus on the quiet of the early morning and the soft music from the car stereo. Tom is playing a Spotify mix of straight-ahead jazz, Little Richard, and 90’s classics. We drive on.
Soon we are on I-88, then the Eisenhower as we speed towards the city. The traffic is light, which surprises me as Chicago expressways always seem congested. I look up and am transfixed by the pre-dawn view before me. The soft silhouette of downtown Chicago. Its massive skyscrapers remind me of a distant mountain range enveloped in fog.
I have to admit that I have a poor sense of space and direction. Despite having lived in Chicago for many years, I still become confused with Chicago’s streets. Finally, however, I start to recognize some familiar landmarks. The old Cook County hospital, the Billy Goat Tavern, and my favorite omelet joint-The Palace. We are driving through Chicago’s Near West Side and heading to River West. These were blighted areas when I was a graduate student at UIC in the 1970s. Now, they are hosts of million-dollar condos housed in red brick low-rise flats and shiny glass mid-rise skyscrapers. I am excited to see this rejuvenation but equally sad for all those displaced by the “wheels of progress.”
We finally arrive at Tom’s job site, a red brick four-flat designed in a mishmash Federal/Georgian/Minimal Traditional style. I’m not sophisticated enough to appreciate such designs as they always look a bit mongrel to me. I grab my camera bag but leave my hoodie behind in the Flex as soon the chill of the night will be replaced by a typical muggy Chicago summer morning. The sun is just starting to light the eastern sky as we trudged the 4 flights to the top unit, which is completely empty and ready for labor.
I wander into the unit’s empty master bedroom and look towards the alleyscape outside its side window. The sun is just cresting over the backs of buildings and distant skyscrapers; I am instantly flooded with memories and longing.
The 1970s was a time of transition for me. I had just successfully defended my Master’s thesis in Microbial Biochemistry. Still, I had decided to abandon pursuing a Ph.D. in favor of the ludicrous idea of applying to medical school, a thought that came out of nowhere and completely consumed me. I started a research job at the University of Chicago during the med school application process. I didn’t want to stay at UIC as my fallback plan. The crazy “voice” in my head told me that I had to close the Ph.D. door. It was not for me; it could not be my “plan B.” I was throwing away something that I wanted only a few years earlier. Why was I so illogical? It was so unlike me.
I had planned my future so carefully. I would earn a Ph.D. and then become a university professor. Everything had fallen into place as UIC not only paid for my tuition but also gave me a small stipend. I was on track to achieve my goal, no small feat for a blue-collar kid from Chicago’s Southwest side who once attended one of the most dangerous high schools in the city.
The urge to give all of this up for potentially nothing built during the final year of my Master’s program. An idea that was both grandiose and insane. Getting into med school was an impossible dream on all levels. Most applicants come from top universities and have designed their lives to look perfect on paper. I had attended a Chicago Junior College and finished my undergraduate degree at a state “normal” university. I did exceedingly well at those institutions, but let’s face it, I didn’t go to science camp as a kid, I didn’t have a professional write my application’s personal statements, and I didn’t attend an ivy league undergraduate school.
I was shocked when seven out of the eight schools that I applied to interviewed me, and all of them either accepted me or put me on a waiting list. I decided to go to Northwestern, but this would mean giving up my suburban condo and moving to Chicago’s Near North Side. I found an apartment building that was recently converted to condos. It was one building off of Lake Shore Drive, and it was surprisingly reasonably priced. I moved in.
It is fascinating how an image can transport you back in time. There was something incredibly familiar with the sight of the sun reflecting on the green glass of a distant skyscraper as it also warmed the adobe-colored backside of a much closer apartment building. A rush of memories cascaded upon me. My first day of medical school where Dean Eckenhoff gave us the best and brightest speech. Buying Napoleons at the French pastry shop in the Belmont Hotel, sipping coffee at the Coffee and Tea Exchange on Broadway, eating lunch with a handful of other older students in the Medical Student Lounge, and walking home from Northwestern’s Chicago campus through Lincoln Park on a spectacularly beautiful spring day. The envy of my youth hit me like a punch to the stomach, and I longed to be back in that moment.
I bathed myself in warm memories before a more rational mind replaced them with a historically accurate recollection. Yes, Dr. Eckenhoff’s speech was inspiring, but most of my time at Northwestern involved study and hard work. Indeed, I loved those Napoleons and the bitter flavor of freshly roasted coffee. Still, I was so poor that I could only afford these delights rarely. I looked forward to spending time with my fellow lunch buddies. However, I ate the same frugal bag lunch every day: a generic bologna sandwich, cookies or a snack cake, and a pouch of insipid Capri Sun. Yes, I have memories of walking home through Lincoln Park, but I mainly arrived at my condo on Aldine via the #151 bus–time was always in short supply. I only saw sunrises because I had to leave for school at dawn. My personal life consisted of a failed relationship. My life was good, but it was not the rose-colored memory that that sunrise evoked.
I would never want to erase that time in my life, but it can never be repeated. I am a different person, changed not only by age but by a wealth of life experiences. Some of those experiences were beautiful, some terrible, some memorable, and others forgotten. All of them worked in concert to make me who I am today.
But, who am I? I’m a 68-year-old man who enjoys his life. I live neither in the past nor the future, but on occasion, I reflect on both. I am a person who does plan for the future, but I’m willing to bend in the breezes of the present. My age is relevant, but it does not define me.
To be in my 20s again would mean that I would have to give up my current relationships and negate my 4 children. To be 20 again would mean that I would lose the knowledge that money and possessions are just frosting on the cake and not the main course in the meal of life. I would still think that my identity was based on my title and accomplishments rather than realizing that my significance is more determined by those who love me. To be 20 again would mean that I would feel guilty when I wasted my time with creative pursuits instead of memorizing facts or learning techniques. Walking in the woods and pausing to smell the wildflowers would be forbidden. Making an elaborate dinner with my children as I sip on a glass of cheap red wine would be something that I would want to do in the future but couldn’t find the time in the present.
Last Friday, I enjoyed sharing an evening with two very dear friends, Ralph and Ann. Both professionals, both very busy, both younger than me. Ann asked me how I fill my days now that I’m retired. I paused for a minute, and I was about to give her a bullet texted answer full of activities and accomplishments. Such a list would be easy for me to compile and signify that I was not wasting my retirement time. However, such a compilation would not truly represent my present life. So, instead of trying to impress her with my productive activities, I told her the following:
Today, I woke up early and shuffled the cars in the driveway to make it easier for Kathryn to pull out. Then, I ground some coffee beans and made a pot for Kathryn, Julie, and me. I took a walk to my friend Tom’s house and chatted with him for a while. On my return, I talked with Grace and told her that I was so proud that she was now a Senior, but I also let her know how much I would miss her when she returned to school. Tom called me again and wondered if I wanted to go out to lunch with him. Of course, I said, “Yes.” On the way home, I stopped at the Jewel and bought snacks, as well as a pie for the evening’s activities. I returned home and tidied the house for company. Julie came home from work, but we quickly had to leave for Uncle Julio’s where we were having dinner with you (Ralph and Ann). I had a delightful time catching up with the latest happenings of my former clinic. I was especially touched when Ralph told me that several staff members asked him to say hello and that they missed me. Now, we were all at our house lounging in the sunroom, drinking decaf coffee and eating French Silk Pie. The windows are open, and a warm, gentle breeze is blowing past us. We talk of life, travels, and children. The kind of talk that only friends with a long history can appreciate. Ralph asks for a shot of CC, and I have to give it to him in a juice glass because I don’t have any shot glasses. Unlike 20 something me, there is no shame or embarrassment- I chuckle, “Take it or leave it.”
I tell Ann that it has been a perfect day, a lovely day. It has been an important day because it will never be repeated, as unique as a snowflake and just as precious.
Dear reader, so many of us live in the past or long for the future, and we destroy our present. We expect life to consist of a series of punctuated events, trips, accomplishments, and purchases. But that is not what life is about. With the greatest sincerity, I tell you it is about a walk, lunch with a friend, a conversation with a couple, the honest labor of cleaning a toilet, a heartfelt emotion, a summer breeze. So often, we throw away these gifts of our life’s season as we fixate on past successes and failures or place our lives on hold for some carrot in our future. Yet, we are all exactly where we are supposed to be at this very moment. All things have both a positive and negative side. How we view our lives is up to us. How we appreciate our moments is solely our responsibility.