[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the 87 years which followed his 1869 birth George Post Wheeler racked up a better-than-impressive résumé of accomplishments. He graduated from Princeton in 1891, and he proceeded to represent the US government serving everywhere from Japan to Russia to London to Rio to Sweden to Albania to Paraguay…yeah…Paraguay. He married a novelist, wrote his own books—including poetry—and worked as journalist. By the time of his death in 1956, no one could argue that Post Wheeler had failed to live one hell of a life.
Halfway* through my own life which started a century after my namesake, I can say that I have lived a slightly more humble experience. I didn’t attend an Ivy League school, I haven’t worked abroad in a half-dozen countries, and my writing career is pretty paltry by comparison. But none of that matters. Because so far I can say that by my own right I’ve lived a hell of a life as well. Besides, when I stumbled upon Post Wheeler I wasn’t looking for a basis of comparison…I was looking for context.
I wanted to know what it meant to be 46-years-old. Two years ago, I was so busy embracing my “40 is the new 20” mantra that I didn’t give myself even half a second to consider that 40 was also a few years past the average halfway point of the male lifespan. Then, after my own encounter with illness and my mom’s passing less than a year after that, I started looking in the mirror with a different perspective. The salt-and-pepper beard I used to grow every winter is now a vivid grey. The wrinkles around and under my eyes are less-hidden by my eyeglasses, and I swear I’ve noticed a spot or two on the tops of my hands.
I’m getting old. It happens if you give it long enough. And while I can still proudly admit that I’m enjoying a pretty vibrant and eventful life at 46, I enjoy it fully aware that my life is an hourglass. Hopefully, I have about as much sand on top as I do on the bottom—as did Post Wheeler. But if I’m wrong on that assumption…if all I’ve got is the 19-some-odd years my mom had when she was my age, then I’m going to live them.
Other than his very brief Wikipedia page, a handful of photos, and a few online annotations connected to his bibliography, I know very little about George Post Wheeler. But when I peer into those photos, and I try to read that face, I see an intelligent, witty statesman with a keen command of syntax and a savvy gift for casual small talk and pointed negotiation. I can’t for the life of me imagine that he’s 100% comfortable in those high starched collars and heavy suits, but it was the style of his day, and he wore it well—he wore like a man who living out the only life he had.
In 1915 Post Wheeler was a 46-year-old living in Tokyo serving as the number-two man in the American Embassy. In 2015 Donovan Wheeler is a 46-year-old approaching early retirement after almost 25 years in a high school classroom. I could easily think about all those grand plans I had as a “teen-something” in college—then compare myself to my century-removed counterpart—and think, “Well, hell…” But I don’t. Everyone dreams big when they’re college freshmen, and we all know how life specializes in changing those plans. So what?
In the end I’m a lot more like Post Wheeler than I am different from him. He’s gone now, but he lived his life. When I’m gone, those who knew me will say that I lived mine, too. So for this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for one of the weirdest things for which someone can express gratitude. I’m thankful for my mortality. Because knowing that my time will end prompts me to live it well while I have it, much like the man in those hundred-year-old, grainy photos who shares my name. And given that we’re all just as mortal, the unintended lesson Post Wheeler has taught me is one everyone should take note of as well. Happy Thanksgiving.
*Technically, I was born 99 years, 10 months, and 10 days after Post Wheeler.