To my astonishment, I find myself now the oldest person in my family, the one next in line to depart. It's hard to comprehend.
How did I become the patriarch? I used to be the kid.
I feel that burden right down, literally, to my bones.
For almost 50 years, I enjoyed robust health, never had a serious illness. Never needed a surgery or spent a night in the hospital. Other than rare bouts with the flu or head colds, I never even felt too bad.
Pretty much, I seemed indestructible. Until I wasn't.
The last few years I've spent half my time — at least it seems that way — in doctors' offices. I've got so many doctors I can't remember all their names.
I take insulin injections. I take pills for hypertension and cholesterol.
I'm continually scheduled for appointments with new specialists. I'm poked and scoped in places I don't even want to mention.
My feet hurt. My knees are shot. My hips ache and so do my shoulders.
I've got a wrecked rotator cuff and bone spurs and arthritis and bursitis and plantar fasciitis and heaven knows what other -itises.
I am, as we used to say in the country, plumb broke down.
When my wife and I move a piece of furniture, Liz lifts the heavy end; I take the lighter end.
"Be careful," she warns. "Be careful now. Don't pull your back."
Could this be me?
Oh yes, Lord, I feel my mortality. I am but human after all.
It's the endless story of mankind, generation after generation.
A week or so ago, my son, John, was sorting through a plastic tub of family photos.
"Next time you come over, you've got to see this snapshot," he told me on the phone. "I think it's you — but it looks exactly like Hudson. You're holding the hand of an old man."
Hudson is John's 2-year-old son.
Later, I examined the black-and-white photo. It was indeed a picture of me.
The toddler I saw from the 1950s didn't just bear a resemblance to my grandson — it was an identical likeness. Spooky, almost.
The man whose hand I held was my grandfather, Papa Chestnut. When I was a kid I loved him more than I loved anyone else.
He's been gone 44 years. I figured the math and realized he would have been younger in that snapshot than I am now.
When my sister and I pass, there will be no one left who recalls the smell of tobacco and Aqua Velva on his flannel shirts or how reassuring it felt to hide your tiny fingers in the grasp of his big, calloused hand. He will have vanished from the earth and from all memory that he ever lived.
My granddaughter Harper, 4, likes to ride around town with me when I'm out running errands. We go to the bank, post office and the grocery.
As we ride along, she sometimes asks me to sing songs I learned in my childhood, such as Hey, Good Lookin' or Mairzy Doats.
I give it my gamest try. She doesn't mind that I can't carry a tune.
The other day I launched into a song that randomly popped into my head.
I warbled, "I love you, a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck."
Instantly, in mid-verse, I was transported decades into the past.
I remembered crawling into my parents' bed and snuggling up against my mother. She would have been in her mid-20s, just a girl, really.
As I sang for Harper, I swear I heard Mom's smooth, clear voice harmonizing along with me across the lost ages: "A hug around the neck, a barrel and a heap. A barrel and a heap and I'm talking in my sleep — about you."
I don't know what to make of any of this.
We're born helpless and scared. We suckle. We grow. We become teenagers and then adults. We decline. We die. We're buried and mourned. We're forgotten. Others take our place. The cycle never ends.
To use another rural expression, it's untelling.
I've pondered all this before.
When I'm in this mood, usually, somehow, I return to a novel called River of Earth, written by the late James Still and published in 1940. I've quoted it before, but I've yet to find a better summation of what I'm trying to say.
In the book, Brother Mobberly, a mountain preacher, tells his congregation: "These hills are jist dirt waves, washing through eternity. My brethren, they hain't a hill standing so proud but hit'll sink to the low ground o' sorrow. Oh, my children, where air we going on this mighty river of earth, a-borning, begetting, and a-dying — the living and the dead riding the waters? Where air it sweeping us?"
People have been asking that since time began, I suppose.
I, for one, am asking today.