I’ll be 59 this summer, the last age at which I reasonably can say that I’m not an old man. You may say that 60 is the new 40, but if you ask my 20-ish daughters about 40, they’ll say it’s the age to start shopping for caskets. As a Catholic, though, I’ll be happy to be 60, happier still to be 70 and 80, if I’m even destined to get there. As long as I’m going to Mass every day, I’ll be the happiest old man in town.
I see that happiness every morning in Frank G., Frank K., and Ferde, though, even at 70-plus, my big brother Ferde will not appreciate the “old man” tag. I saw it all last year in Henry, too. In October, Henry and his wife, Phyllis, stood inside the church door at the end of Mass while Father Barnes blessed them. Then the elderly couple headed off to South Carolina for the winter. The implication of the blessing seemed clear—one or both of them might not make it back in the spring.
Henry is only an inch or two taller than Phyllis, who doesn’t clear five feet, but they look hale and hearty and are both beamish and twinkly. During my first two years of daily Mass at 7 a.m., as I drove or walked my route from home to church, I often saw the two of them out walking by 6:30. They had a daily route, starting out from their apartment down near the train station and winding their way through the neighborhoods on a path that left them at the church door about five minutes of seven. I would arrive at church before them, but could almost set my watch by their arrival: First Phyllis, coming alone up the center aisle and taking her place in the second pew from the front. Then Henry, about thirty seconds later, with their two missals in hand. He would settle himself gently beside Phyllis and hand her her missal. They would often exchange a whispered word or two. They seemed to have trouble hearing each other and, I thought, repeated everything twice. They read aloud faithfully from their missals as the liturgy unfolded. One time, when the antiphon to the psalm reading was particularly long, Father Barnes afterwards thanked Henry and Phyllis from the pulpit for being the only ones who chimed in on the antiphon, because of those missals.
I didn’t see Henry and Phyllis all winter and began looking for them on their morning walk by the official start of spring this March. Not until this week did I see them—and saw them both. Phyllis is using a cane lightly now, without leaning heavily, and Henry is still following behind her with the missals. This morning they were wearing matching green Irish sweaters. Henry’s read “Sean-Athair” and Phyllis’s “Sean-Mháthar”—Irish for grandfather and grandmother. I couldn’t have been happier to see them if they had been my own grandparents.
When I was in college, I used to have a poster on my dorm room wall, one of those crunchy hippy-dippy posters we used to feature in the late 60s and early 70s. It showed an old man who looked much like Walt Whitman—whispy gray hair and beard—walking through a field holding a flower gently between his hands. I remember thinking that I wanted to be that old man some day. It seemed an odd wish for a 19-year-old who thought he would live forever. But I think that even then I knew I would not live forever.
We are all moving relentlessly toward old age (if we get there) and death (when we get there). So it matters what our vision of old age happens to be. This morning, my vision is Henry. My vision is being an old man who goes to Mass every day, preferably with my Phyllis, and carrying her missal.
(NOTE: This post owes a debt to Dr. and particularly to Mrs. Thomas Howard, about whom I wrote here.)