I have always wanted to be a dual citizen. Don’t get me wrong, the United States is a great place to live and my grandparents went through a lot of trouble so that my parents and I could be born here. Even so, a second passport wouldn’t hurt. The UK or Ireland would be nice, carrying overtones of James Bond or James Joyce. Not that anyone would ever mistake me for either of them, but still two of my heroes all the same. Just when I thought my dream of dual citizenship was beyond reach, the passport came earlier this week. It just wasn’t the one I expected.
It happened at an information session where my wife and I had come to learn about a computerized system to sign up for activities at our town’s new senior center, scheduled to open in the fall.
When we arrived in the auditorium, the woman at the desk checked our names against a list of pre-registered participants and handed us each an envelope containing what I would soon start thinking of as my new passport.
It was a small plastic tag that attaches to a key chain and contains the name and logo of our Council on Aging, together with a bar code and unique eight-digit identifying number.
It even has its own brand-new logo, a circular, maze-like design, featuring the town’s initial at its center. It’s not the American eagle, the UK lion and unicorn or the Irish harp, but still it’s a kind of passport that marks its bearer as a citizen of a country defined not by political or geographic boundaries, but by years of life.
I have been visiting this country at least since I joined the AARP when I turned 55, but my membership card to that group was more a like a visa conferring the privileges of travel and discounts on hotels, airline tickets, car rentals and even prescription eyeglasses.
A visa is one thing but a passport is quite another. Making the transition from visitor to citizen requires a level of acceptance that is not easy to achieve when what you are accepting is the reality of advancing age, increasing health challenges and mortality.
I think of my mother who sat alone in her apartment, refusing to visit the senior center across the street and my father, who preferred to stay in his room at a convalescent center instead of sitting in the lobby where he said there were too many old people. Then, as a younger man, I saw only the foolishness of their choices to isolate themselves and not the pain of confronting their lost youth.
Old enough now to understand that pain, I hesitated before registering for my first senior citizens’ activity, a Tai Chi course that I imagined would have me doing graceful, slow-motion, martial arts moves in the park at dawn.
If you can’t be James Bond, Jackie Chan isn’t a bad alternative. The instructor was a young woman from my native land, who has been teaching courses in my new country for many years.
My wife and I were joining an on-going class that had already learned the first 13 Tai Chi movements, but the instructor assured us that our lack of experience didn’t matter. Just follow me and do what I do. And so I did, or at least I tried. Just when I thought I couldn’t get more confused, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned into the direct gaze of a fellow student who said simply, “The sergeant has been fired.”
After checking that I heard her correctly and getting the same message, I fell back on a convention from my work as a psychologist in my country of origin and started to ask her to tell me more about the sergeant. Before I could speak, she added, “The sergeant has been fired and no one is watching you.”
Okay, got it, it’s all perfectly clear now. Or was it? Perhaps she was telling me in a cryptic mystical way that I was trying too hard or maybe it was just her quirky way of saying hello.
In any case, I soon learned that her manner of speech was not typical of the citizens of this new land. For the most part, we share the same language though the new vocabulary has an unusually large number of medical terms and acronyms like A1C, a measure of blood sugar level, HDL and LDL cholesterol, vascular stenosis, and more that I am learning every day.
Differences are apparent not only in vocabulary but also in modes of communication. While newly arrived immigrants are more likely than veterans to use cell phones, we prefer to write grammatically correct text messages, avoiding abbreviations and, in some cases, even signing our names. At least in this, we are more like our new neighbors than the younger citizens of our native land.
I am still young enough to enjoy the pleasures of my new country without too many of its discomforts. Among the benefits are the freedom to set my own schedule or to have no schedule at all, the opportunity to share time with old and new friends in both countries and to pursue interests that have languished in the shadow of more pressing but not necessarily more important obligations.
Best of all, I have finally achieved my goal of dual citizenship. I carry two passports now, one that admits me to the privileges of being a senior citizen, the other, the badge that I use when I go back to the hospital where I volunteer for a few hours each week.
Learning to feel at home in both places, I can see my native land with a perspective that only distance can bring and embrace my new country with all the wonder of an explorer.
Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.