By Jack Cumming
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be old? I know I did. When I was in my early 30s, my wife was gone for the summer with my children, leaving me alone. That was when I became close with my Great Aunt who was then in her 80s. We would have dinner one evening a week, and I eagerly looked forward to those meals during that lonely summer.
What’s It Like to Be Old?
I listened to her stories of my grandfather when my father was an infant. I learned so much from her, but I also wanted to know more, including what she was experiencing. I couldn’t really relate. The most she could tell me was, “I just want to die with dignity. I wouldn’t want to collapse somewhere and be found lying in the gutter.” That was 1967. Aunt Bella had been born in 1882. Now I’m the age she was then.
Last night I had two what I’ll call mourning dreams. They provided me a better sense of age than did Aunt Bella’s simple wisdom. Dreams are pure emotion. Their contexts are often realistic while dreaming, but fanciful in recollection and very hard to reconstruct. They’re like wisps in the fog, here then gone.
In one of the dreams, I was on what I think was a cricket field. I was walking through the outfield with no idea what was going on. The pitcher wound up and even though I was in the outfield, he was pitching in my direction. (It’s a dream; it doesn’t have to make sense, though it did at the time.) Dreams are emotion, not reason.
The pitcher balked. He turned to the referee and complained that he’d been distracted. I was the distraction. I felt terrible. I had interfered with play. And I walked slowly due to my age. My legs just don’t have the go that they once did. I apologized profusely but was ignored; as though I wasn’t even there. The referee looked at the pitcher and declared, “Overturned.” Old people can often feel they’re interfering even as they’re ignored.
Next, I was sitting in the bleachers watching the same game continue. Sitting beside me was another man about my age. I commented, “I can no longer do that,” thinking of the pitcher. “I just don’t have the muscle here,” and I gestured toward my upper arm. The man commented, “I used to be a champion. I was the best pitcher in the league. Now I just watch.” That was that. That’s how men usually mourn together about what they’ve lost I reflected while dreaming.
The Biking Family
Suddenly, magically, with that teleportation intrinsic to vivid dreaming, I was in an apartment building garage looking at a family of four with their bicycles lined up ready to go. There were two, parent bikes and two for the kids, one bright green and one red. The parents were putting on helmets and helping the children.
It brought back memories of when I would go biking with my own children. And I felt great love for the young family, mixed with sadness at the failure my own young marriage had been. With that, suddenly tears flowed. I don’t know where that came from. Usually, I can never cry and certainly never properly as in my dream. I realized that I was mourning all those golden moments that might have been but were lost.
With that, I noticed my daughter-in-law, who is the wife of my Christian clergy son. She’s usually indifferent toward me. My guess is they blame me for the ills of my son’s childhood and the challenges of his life. She has no malice. She’s likely just a bystander who hopes all works out. Still, in my dream, she suddenly saw into my heart and felt compassion. That was surprising. It was as though she had had the change of heart I once hoped my first wife might have.
For years, I hoped if I were steadfast and radiated love that my indifferent wife would come to realize what she had and would open her own heart to me. That never happened. My first wife, as best I can discern, harbored a righteous indifference toward me born of her sense of victimhood. My mother had counseled me that “love begets love,” and believing to be so, I tried to follow that belief.
It didn’t work out and, eventually, we divorced and both remarried. During those difficult days of separation and divorce, I found a prayer. “Lord, I know that divorce is a sin and I have sinned. Where now there are two unhappy people, may there one day be four happy people.” That’s how it worked out for us.
In the irrationality of my dream, my daughter-in-law, who personified that indifference of my first wife, suddenly, after so many years, had a turn of heart. That was a beautiful moment even if it was only in a dream.
Reflection and Meaning
I came into the slow awakening that sometimes allows a vivid dream to fade, while the feelings and circumstances of the dream linger. Wakefulness gradually brings reason to question the emotional irrationality of the dream. I realized that I was mourning all that had been lost. The happy ending was the reconciliation of that loss and those regrets. It was my way of accepting that I’m now older and that what’s past is now a closed book.
Truth to tell, though, I’m not that old. I’m only 84. My friend Bea Rose is 105, and I can only try to imagine what her dreams may be like. Still, I used to wonder what it would be like to be Aunt Bella’s age during that lonely summer long ago when I felt so abandoned and alone. Now I know.