Who Are You Anyway?
I could hear the dejection in his voice that day—the slightly slower cadence, the downturn in his responses.
“What’s wrong, Daddy?” I asked from six hundred miles away. He was one of my best friends, and his sorrow became mine, My heart hurt, and my throat filled with a knot of sadness to think he wasn’t happy.
I think it took a little prying if I remember correctly. My father was a proud man, and to speak of such emotion was to give it a validity with which he did not agree.
“I’m not anybody anymore,” he said.
I was confused. “What do you mean?”
“I’m not anybody. I’m not Capt’n Jack. I’m not a foreman. I’m nobody.”
My dad had been a trucker before he retired, and he had enjoyed that job. His coworkers called him “Captain Jack.” As his funeral procession passed the truck yard on its way to the cemetery, all the trucks in the yard honked their air horns at once and kept up the racket until the last car in the line was gone. They loved him as much as he did them. Before that he had been a factory foreman at a list of places. Sometimes he was laid off because manufacturing has been being eliminated in this country for decades now. Sometimes, though, he was fired because he firmly believed that being in leadership meant risking your position for the people who worked for you. He went down with his ship more than once. I had known his work ethic and integrity were large sources of pride for him, but what I didn’t realize was that much of his identity was tied to them as well.
As is the case with many things, I wish I could tell him now what time and age have taught me about the things he tried to communicate to me years ago.
Now, in my mid-forties, the concept of self-identity is something that I find myself frequently contemplating. Who am I… really? This decade seems to be the one when we realize we’re grown up just in time to find out we are becoming someone we don’t really know.
On Facebook, I see former classmates sending their kids off to college and finding themselves as empty nesters. They’re parents, still, but in a new way. They’re no longer chauffeurs and cheerleaders at sporting or academic events. No longer coordinators of others’ lives. Now they have time to rededicate to careers and spouses, but sometimes they find that those careers aren’t really what they wanted. Maybe they figure out that the spouses aren’t who they married—or they aren’t who their spouses married.
Beauty queens who have always turned heads suddenly see crow’s feet and frown lines and that ever so slight droop to their cheeks, and who are they if they aren’t the women who can have any man they sets their sights on? They don’t know how to relate to a world that at best sees them as “cougars” and at worst as a women in the never ending pursuit of their youth.
Jocks can’t quite keep up with who they were on the playing field a decade ago, and aches and pains are more insistent in the mornings. Injuries last a little longer. They’re athletes past their prime, men who no longer have a value for their physical prowess.
Matt Hughes was a UFC mixed martial arts fighter who was in a horrible accident involving a train. No one will ever know what really happened, but Matt suffered a brain injury and will never be the same. Walking and talking are now major accomplishments. His opponent is now his own body. Who is he now that he cannot be the protector?
A few people I know have found themselves unable to perform the job for which they were trained, and that has made me wonder how I would feel if I couldn’t be a doctor. How tightly am I tied to that portion of who I am? I like to think not terribly tightly. I like to think that that part of me is only loosely woven into my fabric. But then I imagine myself toddling around the nursing home some day, and I realize that being a physician is an important part of who I am to me.
I walk past windows and wonder who that woman is reflected there. Turns out, she’s me, only older. Sometimes I wonder what that means. Who am I, anyway?
Who are we if we aren’t the beauty queen, the jock, the nerd, the hard worker, the parent, the man who stands for his principles? Any of that can change in an instant. What would that mean about the way we interact with our world?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, but now I understand more thoroughly how lost my daddy sounded that day, and I wish I could tell him that I get it and ask him who he is these days.
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