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September 2, 2019 Nonfiction

Nearing 40

Peter Witte

Nearing 40 photo

After “Nearing 90” by William Maxwell

Out of the corner of my eye I see my 40th birthday approaching. It is one year and one month away. Probably, my life is half over. How long will I remain the person I am now?

I am no longer youthful, but not quite middle aged either. Traces of a younger me are present, though fading. My body is that of a former athlete who has turned into a weekend warrior. Or a dad. The so-called dad bod. I have long since accepted the fact that my physique resembles a popular meme, though I agree that a fit body, one with less belly fat, is a pleasure to see in someone of any age.

I have regrets, but not many that I care to share. Often the regrets that buzz around in my mind are the smaller, day-to-day regrets. For example, I regret not cutting the lawn last weekend since it poured rain today. I regret that, just last night, I yelled at my daughter. Few days pass by where I do not question how well I am doing at parenting my two children. One could not say I lack effort. Most nights, I sit with my children and read bedtime stories. This week it’s The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. Sitting there between my kin, I often get emotional. I don’t know why. I tear up at a story that is not filled with pathos, or even if it is, it would not have yanked tears out of me years ago. During a recent reading of Patricia Palacco’s An A From Miss Keller, when the protagonist’s kind, older neighbor passed away, I choked up and cried along with the book’s character. When I wiped my eyes, my daughter, the eldest, looked at me and asked, “Why are you crying, Daddy?” I said I wasn’t. Her head tilted and brow wrinkled. My son looked at me, unconvinced too. I turned back to the story and continued reading.

I am not—I think I am not—afraid of middle-age. I have always carried along with me memories of my father. At my birth, he was already middle-aged. Perhaps it is true of most people, whether or not their father has passed away, and regardless of how long ago it was that he died, but the memories of my father that churn and whip around in my mind the most are from childhood. As far back as I can remember, my father was going through significant financial stress amid a deteriorating career situation. It was not a mid-life crisis. He had a mid-life collapse. He lost his job, struggled to make ends meet thereafter, became addicted to sports trading cards, and retreated into his mind, keeping everyone out. That my father’s life took such a turn in his 50’s stayed with me throughout childhood, into adolescence and early adulthood. The thought still returns to me at unpredictable moments, say when paying a bill or using a shoe horn to put on my dress loafers.

I have always been a good sleeper, someone who falls into a deep sleep quickly and, since adolescence, is unbothered by dreams. But lately I have experienced more sleeplessness, more instances of waking in a panic from horrifying nightmares, usually a grotesque injury, always involving loved ones. I also spend significant amounts of my waking life fretting over my children, contemplating the possibility that an accident or injury could occur.

I feel disturbed, too, by the number of books on my ever-growing to-read pile. There are, simply, too many intriguing books and online essays and stories in the world. Then there is the daily newspaper, social media, my students’ papers, notes from my children’s schools, messages from their teachers, email—good God is there ever email. So much to read! Where is the time? I take solace in what a well-read, smart, accomplished friend told me about her belief: we all must come to accept that we are born with a list of books to read that grows by the day, a stack of books that we will never finish. 

Before I become middle-aged I would like to settle into a job that is secure, that I could work in for many years, perhaps even the rest of my career. I’d also like to finish writing a book that is publishable. This idea often visits me when I am in my attic office, where the walls are lined with shelves filled with books, and I am toiling away on this or that piece of creative work. But always, questions follow: how many more books does this world need? Or, do we really need any more books written by men? By white men? And even if so, why my book? Why my experiences?

There were moments when I believed I understood my father. There is a photo somewhere, I think in an old keepsakes box, of us together when I am an early adolescent and he had already become an enigma to me. We were just back from Sunday Mass and, in a moment of playfulness captured on film, I am sitting across his lap, shirtless and wearing a blue, diagonal-striped tie around my neck. I can recall the expression I gave my mother standing behind the camera, but I cannot remember my father’s face. Was he smiling too? I believe so, because why would he not be? I do recall watching my father shave. After he rinsed, he would always use both hands to pat his face with Old Spice and then reach over and take my watchful face in his hands, dab on the aftershave remnants. For more than ten years I had a beard, but this summer I shaved it off. My children like to watch me shave and I like to dab Old Spice on their little faces.

“What are you working on?” people ask about my writing, out of politeness no doubt. I always evade. “This long thing.” Or, “An essay that explores an old relationship.” Or, “It’s tough to describe this one but to say it’s about a man.” My response is never the same and usually, thankfully, does not lead to follow up questions. I like writing, trying to tell a story. But more often than not, I only know what it is that I am working on after it is completed. 

Every now and then, especially when I am alone in my attic office, I sit and look hard at everything.


image: Peter Witte