I began teaching, at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, in 1969. I was twenty-three years old. Like all new employees, I had to fill out employment forms. One of them concerned my pension. I had to mark my expected retirement date. Everyone then considered sixty-five to be the normal retirement age, so I added sixty-five to my birth year of 1946 and wrote down 2011.
Over the years since then, I sometimes thought of that form and the year 2011. It always seemed so far away, and I always seemed so young. When I got married in 1977, I was only thirty-one and 2011 was thirty-four years in the future. I got divorced in 1986, and 2011 was still a distant twenty-five years ahead. When I moved to Pittsburgh with Karen and the kids in 1988, I was forty-one, but a new life, with a family in a big city, made me feel younger, and the joys and sorrows of watching the children grow up made me forget 2011 altogether.
Karen had a party for me on my fiftieth birthday. We filled the big house on Kentucky Avenue in Pittsburgh with friends and celebrated the start of my late middle age. Yet 2011 was fifteen years distant, and a lot of life can be lived in that many years. I thought of how long it had seemed from birth to fifteen, and this gave me comfort.
In 2001, we retired from regular wage work and began a ten-year odyssey around the United States, from Amherst to Tucson and Portland to South Beach, with a hundred places in between. The excitement of this journey and the experiences we have had gave me an entirely different outlook than I had before. Except for a few days of doom and gloom when I turned sixty, I stopped thinking about that date with destiny in 2011. The confining hills of Western Pennsylvania, the deadness of the old mill towns, and the suspicious narrowness of the people gave way to the broad vistas and open spaces of the West, to the ancient splendors of mountains, oceans, canyons, and deserts. When eons can be seen in a day, what does a year mean or even a lifetime? I began to live more in the present, with an eye looking forward. When you see different things every day, you begin to view the world more like a child. But even better. Everything is new, but you can now put what you are doing in perspective and try to make sense of it. The fact that I can realistically expect to live at most another twenty years or so has become less important. What I do in those years is all that matters.
So as Sunday, January 30 approaches and I reach the age I once thought I never would, I am neither fearful nor depressed. I am happy. We will celebrate my birthday in the house in which I grew up. I haven’t been here for a birthday in at least thirty years. It will be just Karen, my eighty-six year old mother—who had her own birthday on January 26—and me. My children will call, but it will be just another birthday to them. Sixty-five is too far away to matter at their ages!
When I began writing this short essay last week, I thought that when I went to bed on my birthday I would reflect on my past. But I’ve changed my mind. I am going to think about tomorrow. What will we see? What hikes will we take? What strangers will we meet? And one day, I will start to measure out my life in months, then days, then hours and minutes. It will be time for me to join the rocks and turn to dust. Then I will reflect. I hope that all my virtues rise up before me and all my sins disappear. And most of all, I hope Karen is there to bid me farewell.