Later than you think

My nephew visited yesterday. He’s been a bit of a troubled soul. He’s a lovely, kind-hearted, gentle kid, but also lost and aimless. He’s only 21, so it’s not entirely new, except he’s been like this since his early teens. It hasn’t helped that his mother is frequently hostile to him, which is one reason he’s become close to me.

He’s about 6’5” and a good looking kid, though he doesn’t know it. He lacks confidence and one can only hope that it grows in him as he goes out into the world. He came with good news yesterday: today he starts an apprenticeship as a carpenter. He was excited at the prospect and he’ll be good at it. He’s one of those people naturally good with their hands.

I found myself thinking back to when I was about his age. I couldn’t think of any particular moment or detail. I was working at a central branch of a bank then, a big place with lots of departments. I worked in ‘international operations’. I had some good times – a bank is a social place to be.

I’d been lost though in the years before. I certainly wasn’t as knowing as I would become, but I doubt I was an innocent. Lost as I might have been, I think I had a harder edge than he has – but then, they were different times.

I recall taking on a labouring job working on one of the inlets to the Westgate bridge being built. It was very hard work and I only lasted about a week. I was about 19 then. I remember how tired I was at the end of each day and how I felt as if my hands had lost all strength.

I recall also knocking off one day and catching a tram on the outskirts of the city to get to the station at Princes Bridge (as there was then). I was so weary and dusty from the work. I got on the tram and found I had no money for the ticket. I was tall, though not as tall as my nephew, and good looking also (my nephew looks like me), and the female conductor looked at me sympathetically and let me travel without a ticket.

In the hours after my nephew left, I found myself comparing my memories of that time, and my nephew, to how things are today.

I felt a kind of envy for my nephew. He’s at the start of things and I tried to tell him that. And he’s young fit and strong as I was once, and even if it’s been a while since I’ve been young, it was not so long ago that I was as strong as an ox and could go all day. By contrast, he’d arrived when I was in the middle of a nap I couldn’t do without.

I find this very hard – this lack of capacity. So much of my sense of self, it seems, was wrapped up in this notion of myself as a robust and capable physical entity, as well as the rest of it. I still have my mind, but I am – for the moment anyway – much feebler than I’ve ever been. It might seem silly, but I felt very masculine, and was perhaps seen as such, but just a shadow of that remains today.

Oh, I’m stronger now than I was, though still well short of the might I possessed. I don’t have the stamina I did before. So many simple things are still beyond me, not to mention my vanity, which has taken a permanent hit.

It’s important to me that I regain as much as I can, if not more. I think it’s possible, though it feels further off than I’d like. I feels bit like a special case, like an invalid allowances must be made for. I hate it. I’m so obviously damaged goods that I can’t avoid it, but I have to overcome it. I need to prove it, to myself, to others, that I can be stronger than ever. It’s important, not just for my ego, but also for my stage of life.

I feel much more mortal than ever before. I think that’s understandable. For much of your life the thought that you will die one day is very much an abstract. Anyway, it’s miles off. Then, it isn’t.

I live with the thought of death now as I never did before. I remember in hospital and looking at my fellow patients. Mostly, none had surgery as full-on as I had, but I was younger and fitter and had an attitude. I was restless and driven wanting to get better and out of hospital. I felt I didn’t belong there.

But there were others I wondered if they’d ever leave. I saw some very sick and miserable people. Even if they got out of hospital, I thought, they weren’t much longer for this world.

It was an awful thing to think. If I could have looked away, I would have. It was depressing to be faced with this knowing that this was the fate of millions – including, perhaps, myself one day.

I don’t want that. I want to go out on my feet. No guarantees, but I have a lot better chance if I get myself right now and in the years to come. I can’t go back. My youth is gone, if only if known better. But I can be strong again, and hard as a nut. That’s my aim. I can’t live as half a man.

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