I rang the doorbell as cautiously and politely as one can. Funny thing, that, because doorbells aren’t capable of much nuance. It was 5:30 in the evening, or so, and I knew I was probably interrupting someone’s dinner. I stood on the concrete slab of porch, nervously shifting my clipboard from one hand to the other. I’d memorized the elevator speech, more or less, but this never seemed to get any easier. Working for a social justice advocacy group sounded exciting when I signed up, being a college student with hopes of changing the world. But did we really need to do this when tired, hard working people were just sitting down to eat? I pushed the doorbell a second time, softly, wincing as I did it. The chime rang out indifferently, just as loudly as before, oblivious to my anxiety. Unlike people, doorbells serve a single purpose. I strained my ears and heard the slightest movement from within the house; a chair being scraped across linoleum, perhaps, the creaking of the floor as someone rose to their feet. And then, the more definite sound of footsteps as they slowly approached the threshold. The door swung open, creaking on its hinges, and I saw a man many decades my senior. His cane did nothing to diminish his stature, his white hair lending him an air of authority that I was sorely lacking. “Good evening,” he said. “What can I do for you?” “Sir, I know that your time is a valuable commodity,” I began. He nodded in agreement, as if he understood that better than I did. “But I have an important matter to discuss with you. I’d like to talk to you about campaign finance reform.” Now, at the time, I hardly knew what that even meant; nowadays, I could give you an earful about campaign finance reform. Happy to discuss it with any of you at your convenience. But back then, I was pretty clueless. I was making twelve dollars an hour to campaign for the cause, which seemed worthy enough, and to sell a few newsletters. And that was good enough for me. “Did you know,” I began my practiced speech, when the older man cut me off. “Son,” he interrupted with a wry smile on his face, “I’m 87 years old. And I just don’t care anymore.” And with that, he gently closed the door in my face.
I stayed on the porch awhile, considering his words. This was back in the summer of 2001, I think. I did the math; he was born in 1914. This guy lived through the Great Depression. Might have fought in World War II, enduring horrors beyond imagination. He’d probably had a career, and kids. Remembers where he was when Kennedy was assassinated; watched the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal unfold on television, did his civic duty, maybe retired sometime in the 80’s. He’d seen the beginnings of the digital age, suffered his grandkids trying to teach him about e-mail, and he was about to watch the Twin Towers in New York fall in another couple of months. This guy had seen it all, or would before he was through. I probably should have been discouraged by his response. “I’m 87 years old. And I just don’t care anymore.” I probably should have been frustrated. Angry. But I wasn’t; I was inspired. In another few decades, when the good fight had been fought and when – if – I was still alive, that’s the man I wanted to be. A man who had worked hard and done his part and paid his dues; a man who’d earned a good life, free to enjoy the fruit of his labors in the time that was left.
“How many years does a person live?” My older son asked me that just the other day. I didn’t have good answer for him, of course, because know one can tell us exactly how long we’ll walk this earth. I didn’t really know what to say; there’s obviously no answer to a question like that. “Just enjoy your childhood,” I told him. “Enjoy being a kid. Life gets harder, the older you get,” I continued, projecting a bit of my own weariness from a long day onto his impressionable little mind. “You’ve got to deal with some pretty bad things, sometimes.” As soon as I said that, I realized that kids have their own problems. Every time my wife or I pick up our younger son, Levi, from day care, another little boy takes his coat and bites him. Imagine if someone you worked with bit your arm every day like a rabid dog and put on your jacket as you were trying to go home. Fortunately, my older son has fared better. “The worst thing that ever happened to me was throwing up,” he replied. I ran my hand through his hair and told him he was a brave kid. As if I could peer into his future, I felt sorry for the things I knew he’d have to endure, and grateful for the joys he’d get to experience for the first time.
And laying in bed that night, I sorted through my own memories, like someone going through old boxes in the attic that hadn’t been opened in years.
I’m six years old, leafing through the Sears toy catalog a few weeks before Christmas, the thin paper between my fingers reminiscent of gift wrapping. A cassette tape of Barry Manilow holiday music echoes through the house, something my mom likes to listen to while she’s decorating the tree. Definitely gonna ask Santa for those Karate Kid action figures, I think to myself, circling them on the catalog page with a crayon.
I’m ten, my back against the cool concrete wall of the schoolyard. Three other boys are giving me a hard time about something. I try to stand up for myself, but one of them scoops a handful of dirt off the ground and throws it in my mouth. I hate the way the little rocks always get caught in my teeth.
I’m fourteen, and the girl who invited me to the high school football game holds my hand. We sit in the bleachers, a little cold in the brisk November air. Her hand is soft and warm and her hair smells like coconuts. Within a few weeks, she’ll stop speaking to me for reasons I’ll never understand.
I’m eighteen, laying in the grass and watching the stars with my friends. I’m twenty one, standing on the porch of an 87 year old man who just doesn’t care any more. I’m twenty five, headed west on I-291 to Chicago in a battered U-Haul. I press my foot on the gas and time accelerates. Standing with my wife before the altar. Watching my father take his last breath. Holding my firstborn son in my arms, and beginning to learn what it means to live for someone else.
And before long the proverbial boxes in the attic are empty. Only the present moment remains. I’m thirty seven years old, staring at the ceiling and wondering where things go from here.
In the year 2067, a man gazes out his window. He is 87 years old, and he watches his granddaughter pulling out of the driveway and onto the street, the asphalt steaming a little in the hot November air. He keeps on watching a while, staring at nothing in particular, before he descends the elevator from the air conditioned sanctuary of his apartment. As a younger man, he thought he’d probably spend his retirement plugged into some futuristic virtual reality rig, vicariously checking off his bucket list in a digital world, playing out his childhood fantasies in high definition. But that got old after a couple of years, and he felt a need to use the time he had left more wisely. That’s to say nothing of the fact that the rotating servos and mechanical whining of the apparatus drive his wife crazy. He tries to spend some of his free time over at the hospital, now, as a volunteer chaplain. He’d been a pastor, once, and that was about all he’d ever been good at. Figured he might as well put his experience to good use; the world had changed, but it always needed people who could listen for awhile and say an earnest prayer. He only hoped that it made a difference for someone. That he’d made a difference for someone over the years. And as he lays down next to his wife in bed that night, he sorts through his memories, like someone going through old boxes in the attic that hadn’t been opened in years. He remembers lying next to his son, once; a little boy who asked him how many years a person has to live. He didn’t know what to say, at the time, but now he does. The number doesn’t matter as much as the person who lives them. A good life isn’t measured in time, but in love.
And now, looking back, I hope that he can say it was a good life.
Excerpt from “2067” by Rev. Seth Ethan Carey , 2017