“Age is just a number,” I’ve been told repeatedly over the past couple months—a sure sign that my particular number is a big one. It’s a number so big, in fact, the Romans saw fit to use a whole new letter for it: L. Fifty. Half a century. I won’t go into all the ways the world was different in 1968 compared to now, since I was only around for two days of that year and wasn’t conscious of my own existence until the ‘70s. (Won’t be going there, either.) Suffice it to say that this birthday felt weighty and substantial—even while it made me feel how insubstantial a life can be, how fleeting and fragile.
But also (lighten up, Moffitt) how fun. My birthday week was a throwback to certain key aspects of my youth, a time before cellphones and social media, a time when you’d as soon bring a computer on a vacation as a refrigerator, since that’s about how big they were. K and I spent the week offline and off-grid, hiking and camping at Big Bend National Park. No vacation being without snafus, the first days of our trip coincided with the government shutdown, and given that the NPs were affected, we weren’t sure what to expect. After two dreadful days of driving through holiday traffic, the thought that we might arrive at the park’s front gate only to find it closed indefinitely—well, it would be tempting to turn around and drive all the hell the way up to the other border and seek refuge there.
The park was open—unstaffed, but open—so we were lucky enough not to have to change our plans. Equally lucky was the fact that we were there at the very start of the shutdown. People were respectful, packing out their trash and sharing rolls of toilet paper because they knew there’d be no services. This wouldn’t last. By the time we were heading back home, there were reports of overflowing garbage bins, vandalism, and worse. In Joshua Tree National Park, a few of the namesake trees had been cut down by people who wanted to drive their ATVs off trail and decided to destroy whatever got in their way. The park closed after that. If I’d had any hope that hitting the half-century mark would make me feel any less disgusted by the worst aspects of the human race—well, I never did have that hope, and these events certainly didn’t change anything.
Still, though (lighten UP, Moffitt), we had a good week, hiking over 70 miles, up and down mountains, through the desert, past waterfalls and into arroyos and alongside the Rio Grande, on the other side of which was Mexico. Also some extremely steep cliffs. I know border security is a complicated issue, but I also know that the Kool-Aid commercials of my youth—as well as just plain common sense—suggest that building a wall on this side of the river is quite possibly the stupidest idea I’ve heard in my L years of living. (Kool-Aid itself, which back then required the purchaser to add both water and a full cup of sugar, is fairly stupid when you think about it—what exactly were you buying, anyway?—but a lot of people fell for that, too.)
I can see I’m having a hard time sticking to the lighter aspects of my experiences that week. Well, one of the things five decades teaches you is that nothing is ever simple. I did have a truly wonderful birthday. Two days after we returned home, we set out on the road again. K’s father had passed away. We headed back south for the funeral.
K’s father lived 91 years. The grief you feel when someone dies after a very long life—it’s different. There isn’t the raw anguish or anger, the overwhelming need to rail against the gross unfairness of it all. He lived a long time. He would be missed, to be sure, by a huge number of people—all but one of K’s eleven siblings were there, with their families, along with a whole lot of cousins, stepsiblings, and members of the community, including half the town’s fire department, as one of K’s brothers was a retired firefighter—but neither he nor we could reasonably ask for more.
And yet. The grief comes as a reminder that even someone who has been around for that long won’t be any more. One of the other things five decades teaches you is that everything changes. I didn’t know K’s father very well, so the sadness I feel for his passing isn’t from any personal sense of loss. But despite the fact that it was clearly, as most everyone said, his time to go, I just sort of wish he were still around, sitting in a comfy chair, the game on, a bowl of popcorn or chili mac in his hands. I don’t know why I feel this way, except that I guess I just wish something somewhere could be simple and unchanging.
After the services there was lunch in the church basement (fried chicken and mac & cheese, a meal that made many of us grin since it was so very much a favorite of the deceased), and I chatted with one of K’s brothers about astrophysics. He’s not an astrophysicist, nor am I, but it’s as good a topic as any given the circumstances. K’s brother is a smart guy, and I found the conversation enlightening even when it started to get tough for my brain to get around. One thing in particular intrigued me: The fourth dimension, time, he said, is said to exist in the same way the third dimension does. We can’t observe every solid thing in the universe, yet these things still exist. Likewise, we can’t experience all times at once, but they still exist. After all, the “stars” we see in the sky tonight may not even be there any more at the moment we’re seeing them, since it takes their light so long to reach us. And yet, if the star is gone, why do we still see it? Why does its light remain millions of years later?
On our hike along the Rio Grande, we saw the fossilized remains of an ancient nautilus, as well as a few equally prehistoric bivalves, embedded in rock. The area, now desert, used to be sea. The waters are long gone, the creatures in it long dead, and here were their remains, here they remained, as solid as we are.
At every point in our lives we have a chance to glimpse what the future could be—or, rather, what the future is, if all of time is already happening. We can do terrible, destructive things. We’ve already done them, in fact, because that’s the reason the world is in its current condition. But nothing is that simple. We can change. We can. We can look down at the earth, up at the sky, and ahead, and try to see what shape our lives might take, what light we might give, in the future.