by Patrick Cummings
I was leaning against the windows of the Walgreens, waiting for the 66 bus to come and bring me to the gym. Evening rush hour was slowing everything down. A young guy was pacing the sidewalk nearby, asking every second or third person if they might donate money to save the children, or the whales, or the trees.
She was a quarter of the way across the street before I saw her. When she stepped off the curb, I’m sure she had the light. But now, as she pushed her walker, the light was changing and a stream of cars could do nothing but watch and wait. Part of me wanted to go over, pick up the old lady and carry her the rest of the way. Every step was progress, but barely.
I admired her persistence, sad that it took her five full minutes to cross the street. I thought it wasn’t as sad as if she couldn’t make it at all, and I thought about a conversation I’d had recently.
I was sitting beneath the judge’s tent at the Northeast Qualifiers, in a beach chair real low to the pavement. A hundred yards away, barbells and bumper plates crashed to the ground. I could hear the pull-up bars shake under the momentum of kips. Rafael lowered himself into the seat next to me.
As she pushed her walker, the light was changing and a stream of cars could do nothing but watch and wait.
I don’t remember how we got to talking about it, but eventually he mentioned his father. He said there was no way his father could get in and out of a chair like the ones we were in. He said, “I love my father, but I don’t want to end up like him.”
If he isn’t already, Rafael is close to turning forty, though you’d never guess it. He’s a fighter, a trainer, an athlete, and a constant stream of encouragement. You’re always just a little bit better when Raf is nearby, and as we sat there, the irony of what we were talking about didn’t escape me.
It was a weekend to celebrate athleticism, to marvel at the virility, viability and ferociousness of youth, and we were talking about what it was like to grow old. All around us wandered the chiseled bodies of young gods and goddesses, but Rafael and I were talking about nursing homes. We were talking about our fathers.
My father isn’t in bad shape. He’s in his fifties and stays active. My mother sees to it that he eats relatively well, and when he’s not battling some knee or shoulder problem, he gets to the gym a couple times a week. I’ve tried to introduce him to CrossFit, but he’s a man of routine. Twenty minutes on the stationary bike, some seated shoulder presses and leg extensions and he’s happy. Every now and again, he’ll call me and tell me he got on the Concept2 at the Y, just like I showed him.
So maybe I shouldn’t be worried, but I am. I’ve watched his mother start showing signs of Alzheimer’s. At dinner with her, I’ve watched him put on a smile as she tells us the same story she told us ten minutes prior, and I can’t help but wonder if that smile will be mine some day. I want him to stop eating pasta and bread, but I’m fighting against years of homemade Italian cooking and I don’t know how hard to push. I don’t know how to tell him it’s because I don’t want him to end up like her.
Rafael and I are sitting in beach chairs real low to the pavement and he says, “I love my father, but I don’t want to end up like him,” and I start to wonder if my old man could get in and out of the chair. I don’t know the answer.
It’s so easy to get lost in the vanity of now. In the mirror’s reflection. It’s so easy to focus on the Fran time and the max deadlift and the consecutive pull-ups. What’s harder to remember is that we aren’t doing this for today.
It’s nice to look good with your clothes off, but it’s nicer to know that for the rest of your life you’ll be able to take those clothes off without the assistance of a certified health care provider. That you’ll be able to get across the street without the assistance of a traffic cop.
While my father’s mother forgets, my mother’s parents are on their boat, floating down the Hudson River on a trip they’ve taken many times before. When summer comes, family barbeques are scheduled around their arrival. My grandfather is still one of the strongest people I’ve ever known, and my grandmother is still one the sharpest.
I can’t know all the reasons my grandparents have aged differently. There are too many variables. I can’t know if it was environment, their diet, lifestyle, or genetics, but I do know that blaming randomness is too easy. The choices we make in youth give color to our future selves.
What we’re doing, it isn’t about today.