and yet…on being older

Earlier this week I went to Brooklyn to see my friend L and M, my former supervisor at the Manhattan Borough President’s Office (MBP,where I met L too), who I haven’t seen in decades.  

Our meeting spot is a restaurant in Dumbo and I get there early to walk around the beautiful waterfront park, navigating my way around hundreds of tourists (if it’s this bad on a gray weekday I can only imagine what it’s like on a sunny weekend!) I take a few photos too; it’s hard to resist such spectacular views of bridges and cityscapes. It’s the most instagrammed spot in the country and everywhere I look people are taking the perfect picture, at once hyper-attuned and oblivious to where they actually are.

Before the waterfront park was complete, before it was such a popular destination, V went to school down there at the League Treatment Center, back when he was three and four. It was at the very beginning of our autism journey with him, and I used to attend support groups run by one of the school’s social workers. I still remember some of the people in the group, the way – as I would come to find again and again – what we had in common was far more essential than our differences. And so what on the surface was a diverse group was in other ways homogenous : we all had our lives upended by some diagnosis that had barely been in our vocabulary.

I remember walking down by the river back when you could really be alone there, and somehow although I was shell-shocked I also felt that I was in good hands.  V was so little then and the differences between him and his typical peers was pronounced yet not yet profound. So much was still in front of us, I didn’t know yet how much I would have to give up and let go of, so many dreams both for V and for myself. 

Dumbo was a quiet place to calm myself as I stood beside the East River listening to the water, not a touristy circus. There were just a few destinations, like Jacque Torres, where you could get individual truffles and hot chocolate so thick a spoon would practically stand upright in it. It was a gorgeous, barely-discovered neighborhood back then.

But time marches on and Dumbo is jumping and here I am feeling gray and shrunken, no longer the lively animated person I was back at the MBP, back when I worked alongside L and M was our boss and we were in the thick of everything going on in the city, or so it felt. I was the arts funder so I went out constantly to cultural events. L was a frequent companion, always appreciative and excited by theater and museums and other wonderful spots we had the good fortune to frequent.

It is great seeing them both and yet the gap in our experiences over the years seems vast.  M has a great job at a major museum where she has worked for a long time and both she and L keep up with a lot of our old colleagues. And who are you in touch with? M asks, and I have to tell her no one. I had so many good work friends back then and yet I’ve lost touch with all of them. I listen as M and L catch up on various people they still see and feel so out of the loop; my life feels truncated into a before and after my caregiving role. For while I continued working after V’s regression, my career was back burnered for years, and when I came up for air I found myself disconnected from my former colleagues and the many organizations I worked with. M and L kept that work front and center and the difference that has made is profound. 

On the surface, M is far superior to me in every possible way:  professionally, socially, even in her leisure activities – I do Wordle, she does Quordle (4 word puzzles at once!) If she wasn’t so damn gracious and charming it would be easy to find her annoying. 

M taught me how to write a memo: how to use bullets effectively and convey complicated information as succinctly as possible. There’s no room for James Baldwin in public office she quipped, knowing my penchant for long sentences that felt like an homage to my favorite author. I learned in the workplace to keep it short. She left a lasting imprint.

I know that M and L have had major heartaches and challenges too – none of us gets away with a consistently easy life. And yet despite being roughly the same age this last chapter has been so different for us.  L still works part time and travels and sees a large circle of friends. M looks to retire in a few years and renovate her apartment, she’ll have time for travel and seeing her extended family (originally from Liberia, they mostly live on the east coast now, much easier to visit on a regular basis.)

It’s still rare that I answer the simple question How are you? with utter honesty. After all these years I still have a lot of grief, which is hard for those who don’t have that feeling in their gut and heart to comprehend. With all the joys and gratitude in daily life, there remains a sort of aching and yearning that it’s hard to escape yet difficult to express. It’s not something that I can talk about over a delicious lunch of quinoa artichoke burger and shared cauliflower and fries and the witty banter and sharp insight of two old friends.

And yet afterwards as I walk back to the A train I try to focus on our inner connectedness rather than the differences. We all seem stronger and wiser and mellower with age. Better able to face setbacks as well as triumphs. I feel that way with all my friends. We’ve gotten older and our faces have more lines and our bodies have more problems and yet we’re more resilient and forgiving and tender. We all experience the vulnerability of aging, yet our challenges are more a source of humility than humiliation. As with my Dumbo support group all those years ago I see what binds us as stronger than our unique circumstances. And so I take that bond home with me along with some photos from an afternoon in Brooklyn with old friends.

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