February 21, 2019

Living: Defining Age

“May there be just enough clouds with your life that you have a beautiful sunset.”  Grandma Viola Stouder Frederick

Have you thought of how you’d like to leave this world? If given the choice few people would choose a long and lingering illness. Some indicate an accident with instant death; others prefer not to wake up from a good sleep.

Aunt Charlotte, 93 years old, was my dad’s sister. She lived life with graciousness and joy. Married 65 years, her home was on the farm belonging to her husband’s family — an Indiana historic farm, recognized in this way because for over 100 years it was owned by the same family. Aunt Charlotte raised her two sons on this remarkable land; she  continued living in that big house until a few years ago. She then moved in with her son, and only early this year moved to more restricted living.

Over the last several weeks of her life, Aunt Charlotte gave her children and grandchildren a gift. They had the chance to say good bye. Even as she struggled   with memory, she maintained a connection with the people closest to her. As the grandchildren hugged her goodbye, they knew she knew them. She waved them out the door.

The story of her passing is most pleasant. She gathered with other residents for lunch. As she ate, she began to feel a bit tired. Returning to her room, she lay down for a nap. The staff found her later in the forever sleep. It seems a good way to die, in a natural sleep.

Aunt Charlotte loved the big farm house and the farm itself. Her pride  of that farm and it’s beauty was in part because of its age. A winding dirt road led up to the two story farmhouse; large trees in the front yard overhung the path and bathed it in shade. I loved the wraparound porch, where you could look through the trees   and see the mailbox setting a bit askew on the county road. The house had additions and of course the old now unused well. It had a junk pile, some sheds and the Hoosier icon — the barn with a rusty basketball hoop on the side.

She, like my Uncle Bob, had this twinkle in her eye, this appreciation of the day even as days of her life were often full of work with the farm and family.

In the 1930s, years before she married Uncle Paul, my aunt and my mom were good friends. My sister’s middle name is Charlotte; I always knew she was named after Aunt Charlotte. My cousins are only now aware of that connection.

The vision of mom and my aunt as good friends is a pleasant way to think of them. It reminds me of the spirit in mom  when she was at her best.

Fred and Jay, my cousins, tell stories of their mother with the respect, a little awe, and a lot of love. I treasure the image they offered of her turning in the hall and waving good bye for the last time to her grand children, just days before she moved to her sleeping space and her death.

How do you define old? How you feel? How you see people? How is life at a given moment? Ninety-three is certainly considered old.  In a way Aunt Charlotte always felt old to me, after all she was 30 years my senior. The other side of it was when I got to those ages I understood them differently. Still my perception was of her with energy, smiles, love and a zest for life.

My gerontologist friend, David, and I had a brief debate about use of the word “old”. On the one hand I suggested that word not be used, at least not as an excuse to not do something. I say do not focus on age but rather pay attention  to what your body and your mind tells you; if it says do not throw a ball because of risk of injury — don’t throw a ball. But do not say “I am too old to throw a ball.” Attend to the awareness, here and now of your body and mind. Don’t say aloud or silently: I am too old to play ping pong, or too old to dance.

David counters to honor the word “old”. It is part of our natural progression. He challenges me to use it in a healthy way contrary to society’s underlying push to first become an adult as soon as possible and then remain one forever. He adds the word “old” in this society has become an undesired state of being, a word we avoid as in “don’t become old.” If you wonder how society does this, check much of TV programming and advertising. David wondered aloud “at what age do we become old” and wears that tag for himself with honor and   humor. He challenges the notion “you are only as old as you feel” while I think there is much wisdom in the idea. I have met people that at 40 seem “old” and others at 75 that do not. Either way, it begs for the definition of what “old” is for each of us and similarly how can we honor, not avoid the term.

So lessons from my ancestors are to do and do daily. Maintain as often as you can that twinkle in the eye which comes from appreciation of challenging life with the best every day. Much of the twinkle is from doing both the work and the fun of life.  Be with your family, play, dance, work and recognize the interconnection.

It is nice to be here.

Bill

Aging: Keep a Twinkle in Your Eyes

Summertime — it’s for the great outdoors, baseball, parks and family. During this season, families often travel to visit grandparents or go back to home towns. This includes seeing aunts, uncles, cousins — the young and old.

When it comes time for a family reunion, there’s a question of going or not. It’s not because of seeing them, but rather the change of routine, drive, and getting there. Always glad that we went and typically feel enthusiasm once we hit the road.

How do you handle those trips? Awareness, interest, eventual joy?

Over the past six weeks, we have experienced definite joy and discovered treasures of life in unexpected ways. Here’s one of our riches.

About a month ago, Uncle Bob (Bobby as my mom always called him) came back to Indiana for his 70th high school reunion. Think about that – 70 years after high school, at age 88, he makes the trip. His visits back are infrequent. He came from California accompanied by his son Dan.

I know little of Uncle Bob’s life except for brief contacts over the years and stories from the family. He lived in California after military service in World War II. When I visited California in 1962, he took us to Disneyland and Knottsberry Farm; then to his garage where he schooled me in ping pong.

Uncle Bob always seemed, as I remember, to have this gleam in his eyes, this joy of living. He and his wife had a zest for life, finding ways to stay active and connected. In retirement they square danced their way up and down the California coast. Certainly Uncle Bob had struggles. His wife had a prolonged death and recently his only daughter died. It was a shattering time for him.

So Uncle Bob was in Syracuse, Indiana to visit the old farm, for his school reunion and for our family reunion. Dan and I had a catch; it seemed we took up where we last left off as boys in 1962.

But Uncle Bob was the attraction on this Sunday. As I ask how about a brief catch, he says no that arm does not work that way anymore.

Then with that twinkle, he asks if I know how much Ping Pong paddles cost. Responding with a guess of $40-$50; I ask if he has one. He nods yes and I ask how much his cost. He holds out two fingers; I fall for it with “oh you paid two dollars for yours?”  “No, he chuckles, $200.00.”

This is his special paddle; the one he uses to play his son every week as they continue to compete and tease each other about who is the best ping pong player. Uncle Bob and Dan have been playing for years. At 88, Uncle Bob is still playing.

Uncle Bob also uses his expensive paddle to play other residents at his retirement village. His arm does work in that way! And he continues the regular ritual of square dancing; saying “it’s a good way to hold a woman.” Then with that telltale twinkle he adds that he has a female friend.

The consistent gleam in his eye, continues to say “It’s good to be alive. It’s nice to be here.”

I found treasures and another day of happily ever after in that Sunday reunion; I also felt more educated on aging.

Find ways to enjoy yourself. Take advantage of the summertime. Be with your family, play, dance and cuddle. Enjoy the days of your life the best you can.

Bill