The first time my mother saw me all scrubbed up and church-clean, the doctor had me under her arm like a bed roll, she says. When she put me into my mother's lap there in the hospital room, that woman doctor told her that her new baby boy was so healthy she could throw me out in some field somewhere and I could just as easily make it on my own.
My mother told me that story a dozen times, maybe more, a birthday story, but I've never told it myself. Seems a bit vainglorious, and the truth is I've not always been the picture of health anyway. Not that I'm complaining.
That open field talk happened 62 years ago today, which means that today is my birthday. And even though my mother is likely to tell me the story again when I call this morning, I thought I'd beat her to it.
All of which has me numbering my days again. Not that my opinion carries much weight, but this morning I think I'd tell Bret Favre to retire, if he'd ask. What he did last year is one fine swan song, and odds are he won't repeat. But then, who knows?--maybe he'll come back and try it again, take a shot at the top for a grand finale.
But I remember Willie Mays too, how he played with gimpy knees when his legend vastly surpassed his diminished abilities. I remember seeing him gimp along, a man who once upon a time could cover center field like no one else in MLB. I remember catches he didn't make, running, as he was, on little more than reputation. Favre risks leaving that sad species of memory in the minds of kids of all ages.
And me? For the first time in my life I'm sort of proud to say it's my birthday. After age 21, most birthdays feel like the opening bars of a funeral dirge; but now that I'm steadily climbing toward retirement, and retirement seems something akin to the Elysian fields, I'm not shy about flashing the numbers. "Four more years," I used to say, as if it were a political convention. Now it's only three.
Then again, maybe more.
But what happens if between now and quitting time the knees go? What happens if I become Mr. Wilson, the bald old grouch next door in Dennis the Menace? What happens if I stand up in a classroom and make center field a joke?
I don't want that to happen. I want to quit at the top of my game--or at least somewhere I'm not limping along.
Here's what I'm thinking. That woman doctor who delivered me had absolutely no idea I'd end up out here on the edge of the Great Plains, but seeing that here's where I am, I'll take her out-in-the-field gambit and do her one better. Here where the buffalo (used to) roam, the ancient bulls knew dang well how to number their days; and when they did, and when gimpy knees and shortened breath seemed all too regular, those old bulls simply and silently walked away from the herd. No cakes, no retirement watches. They ambled up and over some prairie hill to get to a place where they'd be alone; and that's where it ended, all by their lonesomes, away from the herd. At 62, that's the kind of all-alone field I tell myself I want to be in.
Sometimes I tell my students that someday they'll see me walking up one of those hills just east of the Big Sioux River, maybe a little gimpy, but moving steadily, like an old bull, walking away, full of dignity and pride.
With this catch. Somewhere just over that hill, in a stretch of meadow between some scrub oaks, I'll have a cabin like Thoreau, with a soft chair and an ottoman, a desk, and an laptop, a shelf of good books and a chaise lounge just outside where the jays, the squirrels, and the deer can entertain. And my wife will be there too, just the two of us.
That's what's in that field where, even at 62, I could grow up all by myself.
Just last week, me and the orthopedic surgeon had a powwow. He said he didn't really want to put me under the knife. If those bad knees kept hurting me, he said he'd squirt me full of steriods, like a ball player, like some hobbling center fielder. We struck a deal.
And that's okay. Maybe the knees aren't what they were, but I'm thinking I've still got some hills to climb.
That open field never sounded quite so good.