Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives | Whale’s Tales

It seems I got to be a geezer awful fast.

I was walking along a hall at a former place of employment years ago when the padding of footsteps startled me to a presence at my back.

I turned to see to whom those footsteps belonged and found a grey-haired co-worker, shoulders hunched, arms and fingers extended in a comically-exaggerated, sneaking pose.

“Old age is creeping up on you,” the woman said.

I was in my early 30s at the time, so I could still laugh. After all, at that moment, age and its associated infirmities were a million miles off.

Not so now. Today, I am a 62-year-old man with terminal cancer. And while I can’t say for certain if it’s old age “creeping up” on me and messing with my memory, or if chemo brain is the agent of confusion, my guess is it may be both — an age-and-chemo, one-two punch.

To take the words of the Victorian Scottish poet John Davidson in “Thirty Bob a Week,” his tribute to the working man, admittedly out of context:

“And both of them together in every kind of weather,

Ride me like a double-seated bike…”

My mind has always been an oddity: a trap for words, languages and poetry, a sieve for, well, just about anything practical. Whatever the case, in the last four years, I have picked up the pace on misplacing my keys and phone, struggled with last names, and found myself all too often in places, having forgotten why I’d come there.

Each incident prompts a little bit of self talk, liberally spiced with choice words like “shuckey darns,” and “golly, gee willikers” and other bits too fierce to mention in a family newspaper.

The commentary goes something like this: “Damn it, I know I set out to fetch something, to do something, what was it? I ask cudgeling my addled brain to recall, oh, whatever the hell that was. Then I remember that my mother ran this same routine whenever the difficulties of keeping her six kids straight in her head flummoxed her.

“Carole, uh, Jim, er, Matt, Diane, Jack, Rob, oh, whatever the hell your name is!” she’d say.

Well mom, it’s my turn now.

Last names were the first to elude me. Oddly enough, first names were, and are not, a problem. For ordinary stuff, I have learned to trust in what the great Samuel Johnson had to say: “Sir, knowledge consists of two kinds: either you know something, or you know where to find it.” And thank God I still know where to find what I need to know.

Yet it seems I got to be a geezer awful fast. As the late John Prine penned in his song “Angel from Montgomery,” the years just flowed by “like a broken-down dam.” Until one starts piling up the decades, it would seem impossible to form an idea of how swiftly the current of time runs.

So I do a lot of mental arithmetic to wrap my brain around it. For instance, in 2025, my big brother will have been gone 50 years. If this were 1975, and he had died in 1925, I tell myself, I would be looking back to a sibling who’d died almost seven years after the First World War ended. That shocks me. That I graduated from high school 44 years ago also fritters my wig. When you’re a kid, even a few years difference between you and an upperclassman seems an impossible span of time.

And I want to ask the old dude over there with the white beard, the woman leaning on her cane: Did it seem as short to you as it has to me?

I am not ready to take my place, as Charles Kingsley wrote, “the spent and maimed among.” Life, with all of its issues, is still worth living. And in that hopeful place I would like to remain, where “every lass is a queen, and every goose a swan.”

Robert Whale can be reached at