It’s only mid-August and the temperatures are still in the 40s, but the end of summer looms. Stores have advertisements for back-to-school supplies and children suddenly remember that yes, in fact, they had been assigned summer reading. If you’re an expatriate, you may be facing that expat conundrum: saying goodbye to home so that you can head home.
It’s funny how sometimes the summer takes on a theme all its own – there was the summer when it seemed like every other weekend I was headed to a wedding, and then there was the summer of babies arriving. This summer, some of those babies are heading to college and those departures have created a theme of their own.
I spent time this summer with college friends, whom I no longer call my “old friends” – old hits much too close to home. Let’s say “long-time friends” instead. You know that crew, the ones who have known you from the days of embarrassingly big hair and questionable fashion choices (pleated baggy trousers, anyone?), and they’ve got the faded pre-digital photographs to prove it.
These friends and I have moved on from the days when a crisis meant the pizza place didn’t deliver after midnight to the crisis of taking elderly relatives to the hospital after midnight, and learning in the wee hours that the diagnosis is terminal. Some of us have already lost a parent, while others of us are only just beginning to confront that inevitable reality, and our laughter at those old photos (so much hair!) comes from a deeper place, as a result.
For many of us, summer means the gathering of the clan: toddlers playing with grandmas, and cousins re-realising that “cousin” can be the perfect relationship. You’re not so close as to be annoying, like siblings, but you have a built-in context that friends can’t provide. This summer, perhaps because my mother took a horrible fall earlier in the spring – the sort of fall that had me consulting airline flights to figure out how quickly I could get from Abu Dhabi to her hospital bed in the States if the doctors didn’t stabilise her – the annual visits with relatives had a particular poignancy. Mortality – watching the end game – became this summer’s theme. From a friend struggling with how to tell her parents that they are no longer safe to drive themselves around to cousins helping their mother deal with using a walker after breaking her hip, it seemed like everywhere I turned, someone was negotiating the ageing process, for themselves or someone they love.
Those college-bound babies, whom I remember staggering around with nappies dragging to their knees, are off on their new adventure, shiny with optimism. They move with the grace of youth, their skin tight against their bones and even as I applaud their achievements, their youth reminds me that time’s wheel rolls on.
When I was pregnant, people with children would tell me that having a baby would change everything. I would smile at them, smug in my certainty that while they may have been undone by parenthood, I had everything sussed. And then, sure enough, that first baby was born and wham! Life as I knew it was over. My friends only occasionally muttered something that sounded like: “We told you so.” It was inevitable that life would change, of course, and while we might be able to anticipate those changes, we can never fully be prepared for them.
So too with ageing, I guess – our own and that of our parents and relatives. We know it will come, even as we tell ourselves that the stiffness in our knees is temporary. We’re not ageing, we think: it’s just that the font on the menu is very small and the restaurant lighting very dim.
When I think about gathering with my long-time friends, or with the many generations of my family, I am reminded these days of more than just the bad hairdos of youth. These gatherings also serve as a reminder that love is really the only bulwark we have against mortality.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi