60 (Last Time)

This coming Thanksgiving of 2021 will be the ten-year anniversary of me being ghosted.

The person was an important part of my life, but our connection made both our lives complicated. And we were never able (willing?) to address the problems in ways that would protect the relationship.

The ghosting was a dark cloud over my life for many years—although I never discussed it in any real way with anyone else. And if I am entirely honest with myself, the ghosting may have been about the only option for the other person.

Over the last few years, that dark cloud has vanished, and in its place, the ghosting simply remains as an example of one of my deepest existential fears—realizing I have experienced the last time after the fact.

I think many of us believe that if we have forewarning, we could better prepare for and work through a last-time situation—such as the loss of a loved one or the end of a serious relationship, whether lover or friend.

Not knowing, I admit, triggers my anxiety, but I lost both of my parents about 4 years ago, my father in late June 2017 and my mother that December.

My father had been in poor and declining health for years, to the point that I think many of us had become far too complacent with that reality. He literally died right after telling me he needed to “poop,” likely as three nurses moved him into the bathroom or certainly by the time they had him on the toilet.

Nothing about being aware of his poor health and imminent death or being right there as he passed really made that last time any less overwhelming or less shocking. Once the last time has passed, there are many what-ifs to worry your mind.

My mother’s death was much different. By comparison she seemed healthier than my father (she wasn’t), and then, her death was precipitated by a stroke.

Nearly every day after her stroke in early June until her death in early December, I visited her, unable to speak and often suffering an assortment of ailments that left her miserable. The end for my mother was a many-months nightmare.

Just weeks before she died, the doctors discovered she had stage 4 lung cancer; he last days were spent in hospice where I sat beside her a few hours a day.

She died late at night when I wasn’t there, and I slept through the call from hospice since my cell phone was on silent. The what-ifs about the last time with my mother have weighed on me and my nephews.

On July 9, the day after my granddaughter turned 7, I was just starting a 16-hour drive to Kansas before then driving to Colorado for two weeks before a week in Arkansas to visit friends at the University of Arkansas. While driving, I noticed an email from my dean about a position I had applied for, director of my university’s writing program.

I have been at my university almost twenty years and have invested a great deal of time into our first-year writing program, effectively lobbying for and helping develop the job that I applied for.

Since I was driving, my partner read the email, which explained that I would not be interviewed at all for the position. My dean acknowledged that he knew I would be disappointed.

I am 60, and this was my dream position for my career.

Yes, I was deeply disappointed, driving much of that day very depressed and slightly numb from the realization.

But the larger issue was coming to recognize that this was very likely the last time I would apply for any position other than the one I now have. I certainly will never be the director of writing at my university.

I am white, a man, well paid, and very privileged. I am also 60. People now routinely ask me when I plan to retire.

This is the end of my career, although I genuinely do not think about retiring since writing and teaching are careers I can continue to do for many more years.

And yet, my experience is quite insignificant and pales against the racial and gender awareness among Black people and women (for example) who navigate the workplace with the moment-by-moment awareness that they are being ignored, passed over, paid less, and marginalized simply for being who they are, regardless of their qualifications or potential.

This is not intended as a pity party, but a way to acknowledge and navigate something almost all humans must endure, the fear of and experiencing the last time.

I taught Thornton Wilder’s Our Town many years as a high school English teacher. I have always been drawn to the character Emily who dies young but is allowed to relive a day of her life.

By the final act, Emily views her life in replay from beyond and exclaims: “I can’t look at everything hard enough.”

She then turns to the Stage Manager and asks, distraught: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager replies, “No—Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”

Living is a series of last times, and we are damned as humans to rush through our lives simply not looking hard enough because we are so pre-occupied with our lives.

I am 60.

When I get down on the floor to play with my grandchildren, I inevitably have to stand up. It is a challenge these days, standing up, and I think maybe, just maybe, part of the struggle is carry around all the last times I have accumulated.

Last times I will continue to accumulate.

Until the last time.