Saturday, November 7, 2009

Dying Young

"Look at your wedding photo," said Thomas, "there on the wall."

Alan looked at the picture and smiled. Two days back from their honeymoon, he and Wendy had picked up the picture from the photographers earlier in the day. He turned back to Thomas. "Do you like it?" he said, then added, awkwardly, "Dad?"

"You sure look a lot like the boy in that picture," said Thomas. He took a tentative sip of his coffee, then eased back into the armchair.

Alan felt his face flush. He knew he looked young, but he didn't need the old-timer to rub it in. He wondered whether Judy would mind if he grew a goatee. Of course she would, he thought. Maybe I'll try in a year or two.

"Have I lost you?" said Thomas.

"Sorry, I was daydreaming."

"I said, 'You sure look a lot like the ...'"

"Yeah," said Alan, "I heard. Look, it's our wedding photo; of course I look like myself."

"Of course you do," said Thomas. He took another sip of his coffee. The temperature seemed more to his liking now, and he took a longer drink.

"Sorry," said Allan. "I just don't know what you're driving at."

Thomas nodded. His eyes showed something like patience, or pity. "Look at that photo over there," he said, pointing to a smaller picture on the bookcase, taken on his own wedding day. It was a studio photograph, with Thomas standing rigidly behind his wife, who was sitting on a straight backed chair. The colours had faded over the years, and insects had left dubious deposits behind the glass. "I don't look much like the boy in that photo now, do I?"

Allan stopped the sarcastic reply that came to his mind before it got to his mouth. Thomas was right, of course; it was a boy in the photograph. Allan looked back and forward between the two pictures to compare them. "You've come a long way," he said at last.

Thomas laughed. His laugh was loud and hard, and shook him all over. He spilled coffee into his lap, but he either didn't notice or didn't care. "That," he said, wiping a tear from his eye, "is a very kind way of saying that I'm an old coot now; and that I really look the part."

Allan smiled.

Thirty seconds of silence passed. Thomas sighed. "It creeps away from you, you know," he said. "Time. Days, weeks, months, years. Decades. Soon you'll have one of those small, trendy beards – though not quite as grey as mine – and then your belly will bulge out from too much food and beer – though not quite as big as mine. And every day you'll look a bit less like that boy." He pointed up to the picture again as he spoke.

Allan recalled how his own father had often said, "It's better to learn something about life from somebody else's experience. It's quicker, cheaper and less painful."

Allan smiled at the memory. The smile seemed to encourage Thomas to go on.

"Getting old is a strange feeling, because you don't feel it. Sure, when you run up stairs you feel it; but when you're sitting down, drinking a cup of coffee, it doesn't matter if your eighteen or eighty-one. On the inside you're the same."

Allan was sceptical, but kept this to himself.

"I always thought they were mad," said Thomas, "when old men said that." He shook his head. "But it's true; it's so true."

Well, I still think you're a little bit mad, old-timer, thought Allan. Aloud, he said, "I thought getting old was all about aches and pains?"

"Oh," said Thomas, "that's true. Getting old is not for sissies: it really hurts. But the aches and pains are in your body, not in your mind. It is a pain to grow old; but consider the alternative."

Allan looked into his father-in-law's eyes. "What's that?"

"Dying young."


Ian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian said...

Hi Bernard

Given that I've just turned 59, done my lower back in (again) and am hobbling around the house leaning on a broomstick, this has a certain poignancy and truth that shines out like a light. I expect to be having a conversation like this with my granddaughter in 20 or so years.

And this time I checked my spelling... :)

Bernard S. Jansen said...

Glad you liked it, Ian. The seed for this story came to me when I was sitting at home and looked up at my wedding photo and said to myself, "Look at the boy in that picture." And I've only been married nine years!