I don’t know why I reacted the way I did when we met. I shouldn’t have. After all, it had been more than twenty years since we’d last seen each other. What did I think? He didn’t look that bad, either, this Greek friend of mine who is more than twenty years my junior. He has led a hard but successful life as a farmer, and it shows in his paunch, receding hairline, and puffy eyes. He has three kids and a wife with a look of weary optimism in her wrinkled face.
When we sat down to a dinner of grilled chicken with olive oil, garlic, rosemary, and lemon juice, he told me proudly that the chicken was one of theirs. He had butchered it that afternoon in honor of my visit. His wife served it with potatoes, salad, cheese, olives, bread, and wine, all homemade. Except for the television blaring in the background about the latest protests and strikes in Athens, the scene couldn’t have been more idyllic and loving, which is why my reaction was so unexpected.
They talk in the business world about managing expectations: of customers, coworkers, subordinates, supervisors, even board members. I am used to that sort of thing. Somehow, though, I have a hard time applying it in my personal life, even more so when it comes to age. It may have to do with the strange relationship I have with time and memory. I can recall details from just about any period of my life, but if I don’t stay connected with the people, places, and events I am recalling, they remain forever frozen in my imagination as if in suspended animation. People, for instance, stay forever young no matter how many years have passed.
What was my reaction, exactly, to meeting my friend again and seeing him not just in a new role but with a new identity? He was barely a young man when I first knew him, without a wife or children or even a job outside the family farm. Had I been thinking rationally, I would have realized that he couldn’t have looked the same any more than I could have, but for some reason I didn’t think rationally. I didn’t think about it at all beyond wondering if he had gotten taller or darker. That sounds strange now, but it may reflect not just my distorted sense of time but my own self image. I couldn’t possibly have changed that much, so why should he, right?
If you’ve ever collided at home plate and gotten the wind knocked out of you, you know how I felt. When I recovered, I tried to hide my shock so as not to embarrass him or make his wife think I was having a heart attack. I’m pretty good at covering up, although I don’t like to do it anymore, preferring instead to be honest about my feelings. I tell myself this is the essence of authenticity, but then part of me thinks authenticity is a crock of manure, made by guys on stage with big teeth and a Madonna headset.
Disappointment, that’s what I felt. I’m being authentic here. I was disappointed that he had done none of the things he talked about twenty years earlier–playing soccer, writing music, traveling to America. Those dreams were gone and would never come back just as his youthful beauty would never come back. He had a natural grace in both his physical appearance and the way carried himself that automatically drew people. If he wanted, he could have gone into politics. Given conditions in Greece, I don’t think he could have made much more of a mess.
There’s another side to disappointment, one more subtle and painful. It’s the loss of the past, of what was, of never being able to travel back and recapture the people, places, and events you once knew. The only way to do it now is to fall asleep and dream. But when you wake up, the dream weighs heavy upon you. Still, you carry it and all the others through life, hoping to go back just one more time before it’s too late and you start boring people with tales of hip replacement surgery.
A popular saying, often attributed to Mark Twain, states that, “Age is a matter of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, then it don’t matter.” But the reality is that it does.
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