Youthful Magic Moments

Commentary: In Exile

My family looks great when we’re young. I mean, we look good older, too — my mom, nearing 60, routinely gets mistaken for 10 years younger than she is; my dad, at 62, is thin, handsome and has all of his hair. But in our house in New Hampshire, a poster-size, black-and-white photograph of my grandmother standing astride a glacier high in the Swiss Alps hangs on the wall. She’s wearing skis and Jackie-O sunglasses. And she’s young — probably in her thirties. Her hairdo and smile look like they belong at a Hollywood premiere. Behind her, the Eiger rises dramatically against a sun-struck winter sky. She looks like she’s in her fabulous prime. It’s the most glamorous family photo we have.

Today, my grandmother is 89. She has advanced Alzheimer’s, and in a couple of weeks, it’s time to sell her home and put her in assisted living. Physically, she’s in great shape, but one of these days she’s going to accidentally microwave something for 10 hours and burn down the house. Moving her into assisted living is something that probably should have been done a while back, but for obvious reasons, it’s the kind of thing you put off for an irrational length of time.

She started showing signs of Alzheimer’s years ago. For a while, she would make jokes about it, because what can you do? Now I’m not sure she even really knows that she has it. She’s still lucid and her sense of humor is fully intact, but she often gets confused to the point that she doesn’t know what’s going on. On her good days, she can carry on a pretty good conversation. On her bad days, she has trouble figuring out how to use the phone.

And here’s the funny part: If I’d never known anyone with the disease, I’d assume the expression on their face would be one of constant confusion — a squinting, scrunched brow, like their trying to figure something out. But that’s not what my grandmother looks like at all. She looks, in a strange way, like she’s suspended in a never-ending state of amazement. Her eyes are wide, like a child’s, popped in constant surprise. It’s as if she’s seeing everything, every day, for the first time. She doesn’t look like she’s trying to figure out anything.

She’s still very recognizable from that photo in the Alps, though, with her good-natured smile that instantly puts you at ease. But gone is the cool, youthful blitheness from her face (she was both figuratively and literally on top of the world that day). I’ve seen the same carefree, unencumbered expression on my mom’s face in photographs taken when she was a flight attendant for TWA in her early twenties, and on my dad’s when he had long hair and a long mustache and was still fresh from his days of racing motorbikes. Both my parents are happier, less neurotic people than the bulk of the American public, I think. But a lifetime of parenting, work and stress naturally removes a bit of that easy sparkle that only youth can keep burning behind the eyes.

My 28th is right around the corner, so between the impending birthday and my grandmother’s situation, aging is something I’ve been thinking about. I think it’s something gay men in particular think about a lot. ”Youth-obsessed” is an accurate way to describe us, if you want to make a blanket statement. We chase guys younger than us, and then try to look younger ourselves by going to the gym and, in some cases, by having a little work done.

Part of this, I think, is run-of-the-mill horniness. We’re programmed to find youth physically attractive. Another part is just plain vanity — we want to look more attractive ourselves. And a third part of it is wanting to find that young guy we used to be, the one who didn’t worry about work much, whose smile was unqualified and undistracted, whose inexperience was at least preferable to too much experience, which only seems to bring the kind of knowledge that makes us jaded and cynical.

When I look at photos of myself from just a couple years ago, I’m amazed at how relaxed I look. When I look in the mirror today, I look tired and vaguely annoyed, and I wonder how that happened so fast. Already my eyes have lost the youthful spark that my grandmother appeared to have well into her thirties in that photo. Maybe that’s why she’s still chugging along at 89, even as the rooms of her mind go dark one at a time. ”Young at heart” is a nice expression, but how do you reconcile that with the knowledge you gain?

It would be a good question to ask my grandmother, who seemed to have the answer for a good portion of her life. Since that chance has passed, I’ll just try to take it easy, not get too stressed out or too cynical, and to keep as much of my hair as possible.

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