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Experience Magazine

How An Old Lawyer Disappears

Joe Weeg


  • Feeling invisible or "disappearing" in old age touches on the universal theme of aging and the changing perceptions of self and others.
  • Learn self-acceptance and explore the need for society to value and acknowledge the wisdom and experiences of older generations.
How An Old Lawyer Disappears Karahan

Jump to:

In 1983, the Statue of Liberty disappeared. Poof!

One minute, it was visible to all of us watching on TV and to the live audience on Liberty Island. Then David Copperfield dropped the massive curtain, and the Statue of Liberty was gone. The spotlights passed through the empty space, a helicopter flew where the statue was supposed to be, and Copperfield raised his arms in triumph. The statue just disappeared.

My goodness. Nearly 40 years ago.

A Very Visible Problem

A week ago, I was at a wedding. An older-person affair where the bride and groom had said the words “I do” a few times before in their lives. They’re of an age where they have no issues about money or children or even in-laws, may they rest in peace. But this meant the guests were much older—more my age. I looked forward to the afterparty. People I hadn’t seen for many years had come to celebrate.

That’s where the trouble began.

Old relatives and acquaintances looked at me. They looked again. Then hesitantly, as if still not really sure, they said: “Joe, right?”

Of course, I’ve aged. I scroll and scroll and scroll to get to my year of birth when I register for an app on my phone. I’m washed out and potbellied and mysteriously missing a rear end. And, yes, the double-knee replacement leaves me a bit more like Frankenstein than Fred Astaire. But aren’t the vague outlines of a 21-year-old somewhere in there?

Apparently not.

Today I went to a retirement party at the county attorney’s office. My old office, where I was a prosecutor for 30-plus years. It’s a large office, but I did training throughout our state and region for lawyers, cops, and judges. I knew everyone, and everyone knew me.

Today, I recognize no one, and no one recognizes me. One young lawyer to whom I introduce myself says that he thinks he might have heard my name mentioned in some context. Ouch. It was like I was suddenly living a chapter from Ecclesiastes—that life-affirming “all is vanity” chapter.

Folks, I have disappeared. David Copperfield pulled back the curtain and I’m gone. Wow.

This isn’t a news flash or any great insight. People age and disappear. So what? Well, the “so what” is that it’s happened to me.

Theories I’ve Made Up for the Why

OK, why is this happening? Here are a few guesses.

Disappearing could be just a pure physical reality, like an old dying tree. My arms and legs become withered, my hair thins and whitens, my skin washes out. I vanish back into the plowed ground just as the Old Testament promised, from dust to dust.

That theory, as fun as it is for the worms, has a small problem—I haven’t vanished into the ground just yet. Or as the great, late John Prine sang, “Old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’” Physically diminished or not, I’M STILL HERE, FOLKS! HELLO???

Another theory is that old people disappear because Instagram and TikTok and other social media treasure only slim-cut jeans—in other words, youth, in all its glory. I don’t know. I’m not a fan of “video games cause violence” or “prurient movies increase teen pregnancies” or “the devil made me do it.”

Sorry. Personal responsibility. Blaming my disappearance on Instagram seems a little like blaming my parents for why I can’t play the harmonica. Really? Go take harmonica lessons, you old geezer.

Finally, maybe old people disappear because they can no longer be fruitful and multiply—a Darwinian survival argument based on reproductive strength. This theory says the young woman at the grocery store doesn’t see the old guy buying a dozen donuts because he fails to fall into the category of potential mates. Whereas, that young man putting almond milk and chia seeds in his cart, he’s got possibilities.

But let’s be honest, the young man isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. They end up divorced. And the young woman is left disillusioned and depressed, eating donuts by herself in the grocery store until some vanishing old guy stops by to keep her company. Such is life in the donut-eat-donut world of Darwin.

You’re probably wondering if lawyers are immune from disappearing, given their Teflon nature. Hah! I don’t think so. Although I’m trained to make decisions quickly and decisively while wearing a tie in a courtroom, I’m still the old guy who’s invisible to my new best friend, Caroline, who bumps into me with her walker in my senior Pilates class.

Sure, I used to be respected and maybe even feared when teaching a classroom full of cops, but not so much when my three-year-old granddaughter wants me to play the talking magic carpet while she plays Princess Petunia, Queen of the World. Listen, I liked being respected and feared, but who fears someone who has just flown Princess Petunia to the Island of the Lost Princesses? No one, trust me.

What’s an Old Soul to Do?

William Butler Yeats wrote a poem with the catchy title “The Lamentation of the Old Pensioner.” The poem concludes:

There’s not a woman turns her face

Upon a broken tree,

And yet the beauties that I loved

Are in my memory;

I spit into the face of Time

That has transfigured me.

W.B.’s response is a smidgeon aggressive, but I love it. However, the notion of limiting your life to keeping company with your memories seems not only conversationally one sided, but how many places do you set for dinner when the guests are all in your head?

Memories aren’t nothing, but are they enough? And broken tree or not, W.B. purportedly did just fine romantically in old age, to the chagrin of his wife.

Of course, there’s always Jenny Joseph’s famous poem “Warning,” which starts:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.

. . .

I shall go out in my slippers in the rain And pick flowers in other people’s gardens And learn to spit.

Joseph’s “go crazy” advice is viscerally attractive. Listen, I’ve already gotten an earring in one ear, and I’m looking seriously at tattoos. But this approach is a tad off-putting to the rest of the world.

“Look at that crazy old man” certainly applies to me. Joseph might respond: “Who cares?”

Well, your mother would if she were still alive. Count on it. On the other hand, maybe she wouldn’t roll over in her grave if the tattoo said “Mom.”

And of course let’s not forget Hemingway’s old man in “Old Man and the Sea”:

“Fish,” he said softly, aloud, “I’ll stay with you until I’m dead.”

Lord, help me. Perseverance. Persevere through pain and old age until you die. Make no mistake, I love the idea of a fist raised in defiance to the heavens. Magnificent. But as a prescription for aging? I’d rather use my hands to hold a trashy romance novel while eating pretzels.

OK, just one more idea from the title of a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn (which may have been borrowed from a 1955 periodical):

Wherever You Go, There You Are.

At the older-person wedding I attended, I became a bit cynical at the ceremonial oaths all about “forever love.” Were they kidding? How did that turn out for them in all their earlier weddings? But then I paused. Who am I kidding? I absolutely believe in forever love. Aren’t the newlyweds really saying: “We forever love each other today, but let’s keep our fingers crossed about tomorrow”?

So maybe that’s the answer to the disappearance problem—living in the moment. I may be disappearing, but I’m here this moment, and the next, and the next, until I’m not. Kabat-Zinn’s “wherever you go, there you are” applies not just when you’re visiting Amsterdam from Des Moines, Iowa, but when you’re aging.

I’m me at 20, and I’m me at 70. And isn’t the infinity of this moment enough? Well, it certainly would be if the moment were eating a cinnamon roll, but it’s not so much when the moment is slipping on the ice and wondering how to get back up with a little honor.

The Moral of the Story?

David Copperfield said he made the Statue of Liberty disappear for a reason. He wanted us to appreciate and feel the loss of liberty for a few seconds. Hmmmm. Perhaps we old people disappear for a similar reason—so that we can appreciate and understand our fragile humanity. Disappearing gentles our spirit and makes us look out at that person looking in with some long-overdue compassion.

Or not. You pays your money and you takes your chances, as the carnival barker says. But hurry up and decide because you’ve almost disappeared.