While singing "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"
I have walked down the yellow brick road for 7-decades...longer than the vast majority of other Americans have journeyed. If I had only been born and grew up in China, I would be revered by my family and society. I would be seen as very wise due to the long years of learning and of experiencing life. However, I wasn't born nor grew up in China. While I know that I have learned a lot in my lifespan, most of my best learning was via that of making mistakes and learning from them. Having acknowledged that I have learned a lot, I don't feel satisfied nor do I feel content.
In my journey of learning and experiencing life over many years, I have discovered that I have more questions now than answers. At this time of my life, the answers that I have are generally correct. However, the truly important questions aren't yet answered. Recently, I wrote an article about my two young grandsons, Jack and Owen. They possess the questions of the wondrous world of why. They ask and look at everything and want to examine it or find out why.
I would have thought that I would have grasped the why issues of my life...by now. Jack and Owen have not been around for 70-years to figure out all their whys of life. They merely look around in astonishment and wonder at all the things coming their way at 33-months and 9-months in age. Enjoyment abounds. I understand many of their whys of life, but as for the why that is critical in my personal life, I wrestle with it. The question is the why about them and me? I don't understand nor do I get it. I want clarity with my why...especially at my age and at my place on the yellow brick road. When I was young just having my family, I had miles to go down that road. Where I am on my yellow brick road today isn't filled with a lifetime more of bricks.
What rattles me is that I can't grasp the meaning of those two grandsons, Jack and Owen. I really don't get it. I know about grandparents' special draw to and relationship with their grandchildren. It is a hoot and fun to visit them and for them to visit Ann and me. I get that.
Jack and Owen aren't my first grandchildren. I have a granddaughter, Ayanna, who is graduating from high school in a couple of months. For most of her life starting when she was a toddler until her senior year in high school, we have gone out each week for years to a local Dairy Queen. For about half that timeframe, she would get the same order: a vanilla cone dipped in a cherry hard shell topping, which she called her "Elmo treat". The red topping reminded her of Elmo on Sesame Street. While Ayanna crunched through the Elmo topping, we would discuss the issues that she thought were relevant about school, her friends, and her pets: Lucy, Peanut, and Buttercup.
During her senior year, she doesn't have the time due to school, two jobs, and getting ready for college to go to the Dairy Queen. However, before she packs up for college, I'll have her introduce Jack to her "Elmo treats". Jack knows Elmo well. He possesses nearly every Elmo toy ever produced.
During part of that time of having "Elmo treats" with Ayanna, I lived out in a heavily wooded subdivision where I fed dozens of raccoons. I had trained one of the raccoon-visitors to come up to me on my deck and take pieces of pizza that I would hold in my mouth. Ayanna named the raccoon, Ra-Ra.
However, life is different now, but why? Some obvious reasons are that I am nearly two decades older. In addition, I have danced with death a couple of times in the past handful of years. One time was when I fell off a ladder while painting my deck and was in ICU for a month. I talked with and recognized everyone who came to visit me including Ayanna. However, I don't recall a nanosecond of those visits, being in the hospital, or even the fall. Therefore, I understand my terminality on the yellow brick road of life far more than I did almost 20 years ago while feeding Ra-Ra leftover pizza with Ayanna. I understand death at a radically different level. Trust me. I am healthy, teach at the college level every day, write all the time, plan long trips overseas, exercise all the time, etc. Having said that, I am fully aware that my time here is limited to a couple of decades...not to a lifetime.
Jack and Owen are 33 and 9-months old. Ann and I have fun with them at their home on a weekly basis when we babysit for them, and they are at our home nearly every month or so. Those times are treasured times. We live on a lake, which Jack loves. If you asked Jack about kayaking with me last summer, he would get excited telling you about how we did it, where we rowed, and how much fun he had. However, he won't remember those first summers helping me paddle across the lake when he graduates for high school. We will take pictures, but the actual memory will be lost.
That troubles me. I love the fun things that he and I have done and that Owen will be beginning to do this summer. However, those treasured times I won't ever forget...but they won't remember. Most of our childhood memories are lost prior to about 5 except for occasional, fragmented short clips.
I want Jack and Owen to remember me like I remember my grandmother and my Aunt Dot. We'd go down to the farm in Oxford, PA every summer. I'd go to their home in Merchantville, NJ all the time. My grandmother and Aunt Dot are memories that I remember fondly and want Jack and Owen to have similar remembrances of shared times of love and caring.
As for my memory of my grandfathers, I have some pictures of both of them. My Grandfather Campbell is playing with me down at the shore. The other is of my Grandfather Oakford on the front porch of his home where I lived during WWII. From the pictures, we all seemed to enjoy that time together. Nevertheless, they are gone, and I don't recall a moment of that time.
I do recall some very faded memory at probably 4 years of age sitting with him in his backyard while he was cleaning corn. And that is it. Those two surely loved me, and I certainly loved the time with them, but I don't have much of a memory of them.
Perhaps some of my why regarding Jack and Owen has to do with the going through a very late grieving process of losing my grandfathers now that I am 70. Apparently, it was delayed by about 65-years or more.
Also, maybe I have bifurcated myself into two parts: a grandfather and grandsons. I could merely be playing with them as I was played with by my grandfathers. I get that. And maybe, I am also Jack and Owen...oblivious that they could grow up not having any real memory of me. Talk about a gut-wrenching feeling...
So, like all pain, it will cause all of us to act. I will do what I can to stay healthy by watching what I eat and exercising every day. However, that isn't any assurance or a guarantee of anything. I have exercised nearly every day since I ran cross country in high school and college. In the past half century, exercise is done routinely. Nevertheless, my brushes with death weren't related to my cardiovascular health. In fact, today I went to Dr. Marchand, my cardiologist for a routine appointment. Next Monday at 6:45am, I will go for a nuclear stress test to make sure that I am as healthy as I think I am. If you are looking for a great cardiologist in NW Indiana, see him. The doctor-patient relationship is excellent. He will talk to you directly and not mince his words, and he is honest and can be trusted.
However, my belated grieving process isn't all of my concern that I have with Jack and Owen. Another part of my looking back and forward has to do with education and learning. A part of my drive for them and Ayanna is related to being an above average student in an average American school system in Pennsauken, New Jersey and moving to Pittsburgh, PA toward the end of my elementary school experience. Mt. Lebanon was the community into which my parents moved. I went from above average to average in the 19th best system in the entire country. After that move to Mt. Lebanon, I learned two things: I was dumb and poor...both were mistakes. However, half my life passed by before I realized that I hadn't done my math well. Neither was I dumb nor poor. That was a hard lesson to learn, but it turned into a blessing.
I don't want my grandchildren to make the same type of mistake that I did. Ayanna has heard the story about Mt. Lebanon for years. However, Jack and Owen haven't. I realize that, and I will make sure they can learn not to make that mistake about perceiving themselves incorrectly. Life will dump on them enough; they don't need extra baggage, which isn't true about them. I will be there for each of them as long as I am around...that is assured. But what happens in another decade or two? If I am really lucky, I want to reach 100 so as to outlive George Burns who was also born of January 20th. I take our mutual birthdays as a good omen of a long life.
Nevertheless, there is an end to all of our yellow brick roads of life. That is merely a reality. It is a fact of life that death is tied to life. I know that better than most who are still alive. One of my pains is what is there after this...when we are gone from this world. Many like the notion of living beyond the grave. Well, that notion bothers me...the why of that.
One of the benefits of a long and educated life is that you can learn. If there is life beyond death for you and me, it won't be like the pearly gates and stopping daily at some divine Starbucks for a caffé misto with Aunt Dot and my grandmother. Nor will I run into Bobby Kennedy or Abe Lincoln on my stroll home to my pearly subdivision after coffee.
Now, this might sound like that I am questioning some physical resurrection of human beings after death...I am. Over the 70-years, I learned things that I never knew...in areas of discovery that weren't even near my humanities training...like science. We know that the creation of the universe occurred circa 14 billion years ago...give or take several million years. The big bang happened, and the universe is still ever expanding out into the further vastness of nothingness. Humans, like us, can be traced back to around 200,000 years ago.
Don't forget that I had a meager 10-hours of geology and no hours in math while in over 250-hours of college, grad school, or post grad school. Having admitted my limitations in math and science, by my calculations, humans have been around for 1/70,000th of the time since the big bang.
Into this mega-eon universe, the notion that some divine force or god out there cares about us human beings in the vastness of all creation is a bit of a logical stretch. If there is a god out there, he wasn't uniquely interested in creating the entire universe 14-billion years ago for the benefit of us in the last nanosecond since the big bang.
In addition, there are estimated 250,000 trillion stars within a billion light years from us...a light year is the speed that light travels in a year. Even to my mere scientific mind, a light year seems a great distance, and the estimate is based upon a billion light years. Now, you will have to estimate the number of planets there are in the 250,000 trillion stars within the first billion light years from us. I don't know but the number isn't 8 or 9 depending upon what you call Pluto today. Now, gaze upon the picture of the 250,000 trillion stars, and we are so important to god that he has singled us out in the vastness of what we know exists to give us immortality forever. Well, maybe, but I wouldn't put too much on that bet.
Nonetheless, in our finite world of humans, we see ourselves as something truly special. The question is whether god gifted all the other dozen or more human-like species that evolved and were here on earth in many cases far longer than we have been, do they have immortality too? Or just us? And what about animals from which we evolved. Are they gifted also? What about animals or insects or reptiles or birds that aren't like us? Do they live beyond their death? And what about all the other 250,000 trillion stars and whatever the number of planets contained within the known universe? Are living animals given immortal lives also? I've taken loads of chances in life, but I wouldn't put too much on any of us talking to loved ones after we die.
Therefore, I am sitting here in front on my computer attempting to deal with what remains of my yellow brick road looking back into the past and looking into the future. And hoping that the sun don't go down on me too soon... I am sitting here with data that isn't debatable and data that I don't get. Without taking more years in science than a miserly 10-hours and no math classes in college, grad, and post grad school, I get science enough to see the data and comprehend the general meaning. However, I don't get the data with those two little ones. I'd give up whatever is left of my yellow brick road if I could assure less bumps or detours for them in their journey. I'll be there for the two of them as long as I can. I will laugh and show them things. I will tease and teach. I will hold them tight and wonder...wonder why.
Jack and Owen, someday and in your distant futures, I hope that you will feel like I do as you approach where I am now. I hope that both of you will have little ones that supply hope and whatever meaning there is to you and your lives. It is a pain...a horrific pain to be at that place in life when you notice that the sun is casting a longer and longer golden glow on the road that lies ahead. But Jack and Owen, I wouldn't want it differently.
Amid the pain, you provide the only meaning that I understand. I look back and look with hope into your futures. Jack you are walking and Owen is starting to crawl and neither of you understand the road that lies ahead. But remember this, enjoy the walk...it will end all too soon. However, that knowledge of your finiteness will provide meaning to the walk down the yellow brick road of your lives.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
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