good luck, sweet boy

If you’d like to feel the full weight of your age, sit it a classroom full of college students. I speak on an alumni panel back at my school, seated between a 2010 graduate and one from 2009. I am 100 years old.

The students are participating as part of a public service training day. For those who want to work in the “community.” We – the alumni – are there to talk about why we do. To my right, 2010 introduces himself with prepared notes he reads from his phone. Talks about his agency, about how he always knew that he wanted to give back, urges the students to give back, too. 2009 does not have notes, but she too gives the mission statement of her organization, its importance. When my turn comes, I wave my arms around, talk about trying to live a values-driven life. The students sitting just in front of me are gazing off to the side of the room.

I give a 30-second polemic against the word “webinar.” I look over at J., who invited me, trying to apologize with my eyes. Look, I want to say, what you see is what you get. This is what I am these days. All arm-waving and jeremiad.

After the panel, a young man approaches me. His dark bangs fall across his face. His lip is pierced in two places. He says he’s the first in his family to go to college, too, and he asks me if I would talk more about what that was like, for me. About how I talked to my parents about wanting something that they didn’t understand. I look at him – his smooth face, his dark eyes, his expression – the very definition of earnest. He could be my son, really, and the weight of this hits me.

I think about my mother, that summer before I left for college. She had started wearing make-up, just a little, and sometimes, she would ask me to line the corners of her eyes with the black pencil, as she had been shown at the department store. She would sit on the edge of the tub in the bathroom, and I would stand over her and carefully draw it across her eyelids – top and bottom. It’s a Saturday morning, and we are going out. I am standing over her and I say, “What are you going to do when I am gone?”

Her face falls. “If you don’t want to do it for me, I’ll do it myself.” She takes the pencil from my hands and pushes me out of the way, stands up at the mirror. I try to speak, but she’s already gone.

“Please leave now,” she says, still facing the mirror. “Go.”

I turn back to the boy. Tell him: Remember that they want you to be happy, but that they are also afraid they will lose you.

Tell them how grateful you are that they have given you this gift – to see the world beyond the one you grew up in. Tell them that it is the values that they gave you that allow you to make your own way. Tell them that you love them, and always will. And then give them some time to sit with it all.

He smiles, shakes my hand, says thank you. I think about him as I make my way back to my car. Good luck, sweet boy, good luck.