At the optometrist, a father confronts his own mortality

When a young dad isn't so young anymore, the perspective can be faith-shaking.
Our Faith

My 7-year-old recently entered a new stage of life: He got glasses to help him focus in the classroom. He even picked out frames that closely resemble mine (just enough to be flattering).

Meanwhile, my recent experience in eye care is slightly different from my son’s. My optometrist informed me that while my eyes seemed to be holding well at their current prescription, in a couple years we’ll probably need to have a conversation about bifocals.

As far as seeing clearly goes, this was, in the words of the band Spinal Tap while standing at the grave of Elvis Presley, “too much [expletive] perspective.” Just because I’ve entered this stage of my life, doesn’t mean I want to be aware of it! Welcome to the early 40s.

When you’re a young parent telling new acquaintances the ages of your kids, a frequently heard refrain is, “Those years go by so quickly!” This comment always seems focused on the precipitous growth of your children. But what isn’t noted is that those years are going by for the parents as well. About the time your little one is hitting that pre-puberty growth spurt, your own body is also beset with new and traumatic changes.


“Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return,” goes the formula at the beginning of Lent. And taking a break from parenting long enough to note the passage of time in our own lives is perhaps the most effective mortality reminder I have found thus far.

Just as Lent is paradoxically the season of austere mortality awareness against the backdrop of springtime’s burgeoning new life, parenthood features a wild confluence of eras: One life comes into full flower just as another recognizes its limitations. One individual feels effortlessly alive, while the other experiences a sense of coming unmade.

The 40s decade has its own daunting mathematics. We are chronologically perched precisely between birth and the 80s. Halfway to being 80 is a hard place to be, and the recent output of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones doesn’t do much to take the edge off that shock.

Scary math is also part of another intrusive mental game:


My parents were younger than I am now when this life milestone happened (for example, my wedding day).

The date of my birth is closer to the end of World War II than it is to today’s date.

There’s also another bit of unwelcome perspective: Time itself accelerates ever more notably at this stage of life. The milestones of childhood that seemed to unfold in separate epochs are now alarmingly close to one another. It’s sobering, in the face of this acceleration, to recognize that subsequent decades aren’t likely to do some kind of courtesy slowdown, like a plane approaching a runway. Scripture tells us that life is short—but yeesh!

This whole aging experience has a weird impact on my faith. On the one hand, faith is a source of constancy and comfort. On the other hand, my newfound anxieties line up just a little too conveniently with what organized religion in general and my church in particular have been offering for centuries: Everlasting life? A renewed, glorified body? A state of eternal joy in which time simply does not exist? Oh, that’s right. Well, please sign me up!


Richard Rohr has written and spoken extensively about the spirituality of the second half of life, in which we accept our mortality and drop into a more authentic sense of self. This takes us beyond the collapsing ego constructions that defined meaning for us in our younger years. But nothing quite prepares you for when your younger self’s very concept of God happens to be among those imploding structures.

Meanwhile, my kids are only beginning to build those structures in order to have their own sense of self and the universe in which they live. We’ve moved past the preschooler who expressed a wish to die so he could go be in heaven with Jesus and moved on to the kindergartener asking why God didn’t make people so they could live forever. This may seem like a low-hanging fruit for spiritual instruction, an easy opportunity to introduce the Easter notion of Jesus Christ “trampling down death by death” (as the Orthodox resurrection liturgy says)—but the timing of my kid’s questions when set against my own life stage makes this a sore subject.

Perhaps projecting my own anxieties about aging and death into parenting is inevitable. Like my own aging process, my children’s growth doesn’t just level off at some point. My grandmother, who is 97, watches her kids enter their 70s with all the troubles of aging, all the messes and setbacks. As she witnesses their pain through the eyes of someone who cares and identifies deeply, I realize that not only will I have to experience my own aging; I will have to experience my children going through the aging process. It’s painful to think about. Clearly, I’m on track to return to dust—but that’s not what I want for my kids!

Another quirk of human development is that small children remember so little of their journeys, and so it falls to the parent to create a lasting record. This curating of cherished memories is dicey business, though. The impulse to document can quickly morph into a panic-inducing clinging and hoarding that is both intrusive and crushing. And yet again, a sense of my own mortality only augments the weight I feel. It’s untenable.


But perhaps it should be. As with so much of life, ultimately the aging process forces us to stop clinging and live fully in the present moment with gratitude and joy. Yes, life is fleeting, and when we’re busy and distracted, we may miss out on a full experience of the important stuff. But we can choose to see time as the God-given gift it is, enjoying its endless cycle of transitions upon transitions—even the annoying physical changes or the painful final partings. Experiences such as these are exactly where we also find the constancy and companionship of God’s abiding presence. Jesus reminds us that the love an earthly parent feels is eternally magnified in the goodness and care of our God (Matt. 7:11).

Through Jesus’ death by crucifixion when he was a young man in his 30s, God touched the depths of human experience. As we follow Jesus’ example on the cross, we realize that the only way through this dilemma is to let go and allow the passage of time to empty us. It’s a bittersweet journey to take—and not always easy even to perceive.


This article also appears in the March 2024 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 89, No. 3, pages 43-44). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Header image: Unsplash/David Peters


About the author

Don Clemmer

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