When “When I’m Sixty-Four” by The Beatles floated into baby boomers’ college dorm rooms, we thought, “No way I’m ever THAT old!”
We’re no longer “late middle age,” however, when handed a movie ticket and told, “I gave you the senior discount.”
We also attend more funerals and wakes than weddings and birthdays.
Recently, writer, composer, actor and longtime Geneva resident Paul Cook died. It’s hard to imagine the St. Charles Writers Group without Paul making spot-on critiques of a manuscript or delivering double entendres with a face straighter than railroad tracks crossing the salt flats.
Paul could describe a character’s life in one paragraph. No, in one sentence. No, in one image. He wrote fiction by camouflaging plot behind people who didn’t think about things, but did them. I never read a sentence that Paul submitted that was not polished. No, not glitzy, but polished, sounding as if it couldn’t wait to get out of his pencil, and had spun out all on its own.
Even though lately the writers group has grown, it has seemed smaller since Paul left. I miss the times he’d sidle up and quietly say, “Hey, did ya hear the one about the three gorillas who walked into this bar ... .” He told jokes with more panache than Milton Berle; were he reading over my shoulder as I type this (and for all I know, he may be), he might tell me he taught Berle how to deliver a punch line – with a face straighter than railroad tracks crossing the salt flats.
Where funerals emphasize death’s inevitability, weddings and birthdays tout life’s resilience. Not long ago, my wife and I attended a lovely wedding reception at Geneva’s Riverside banquets. Our table included another neighbor and her friend, a mortician. Resisting making jokes he’d surely heard (“Hear ya got stiff competition”), I laid them to rest, ha-ha, and enjoyed the irony of sitting through this celebration of life with a man whose business was death.
Birthdays, too, celebrate the future (“ ... and one to grow on”), but here, too, Death shows his practical joker side. A short time ago, someone close to our family turned 21, the gateway to adulthood. The morning after a bout of pub-hopping, he complained of stomach flu.
“Hangover,” a friend corrected.
My brother, a physician, offered a diagnosis: “It would seem we have a new (really?!) flu strain, the 12 a.m. 21st birthday virus. It does not lead to death; victims just wish it would.”
Excepting one’s own funeral, such milestones lead to self-reflection. T.S. Eliot’s poetic persona, J. Alfred Prufrock, confesses, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” Although likely to admit daily spooned routines ourselves, we relish the times we shoveled life, poured everything into crucial life decisions, chose Frost’s road less traveled, or imitated Tennyson’s Ulysses, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Those times, in other words, people will speak of when remembering us at our best.
• Rick Holinger has lived and taught high school in the Fox Valley since 1979. His poetry, stories, essays, and book reviews have appeared in more than 100 literary journals. He is the founder and facilitator the St. Charles Writers Group. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.