Reflections For Father’s Day 2020

Remembering my dad after his death 50 years ago

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

My father died in 1968, sitting in his recliner, popping M & M candy, and watching TV. These days I am doing pretty much the same thing he was at the end, except my sugar of choice is Famous Amos cookies.

He and I also share a similar disability. Our legs gave out on us.

It was never clear to his doctors what was wrong. He gradually lost mobility in his forties and, although they diagnosed him at an advanced medical center, the only answer was “nerve deterioration in his lower spinal cord.”

In my case, it is clearer, probably because research, imagery, and surgery have improved dramatically over these past decades. Spinal stenosis, where arthritis has squeezed the nerves so much that there is pain, loss of sensation, and muscle atrophy in the legs.

Dad used a walker to get around, dragging his legs along. I’m able to walk without an assistive device, but my gait is wobbly and my back pain makes the trip miserable. Once again, I have the significant advantage of medical discoveries; back surgery has given me many more possibilities.


My father passed down a few witty, if not profound, sayings I think of often.

“All good things must come to an end” is one of my favorites. It wasn’t always clear to what he referred, but I guess his demise illustrated its wisdom.

He also liked to say, “Eat to live; don’t live to eat.” To back this up, when we worked early mornings, at a restaurant he ordered the same breakfast every time: One egg over easy with dry toast.

One piece of advice, which I am not sure I understood at first, was “Treat girls like you would like to have your sisters treated.” Maybe it was a very compact version of the ‘birds and bees’ thing, but it wasn’t full of information.


One of the deeper conversations I had with him was by old-fashioned letter writing. After my father’s first heart attack, three years before his death, I starting writing him regular letters. Most of these typed pages with erasures and backspace corrections were typical. “How’s the weather?” “The car had a flat.” “Lake Michigan is frozen.” “Did you watch Bonanza on Sunday evening?”

Once, in contrast, I started a thread, more revealing for both of us. Having finished seminary and struggling with what it meant to have a calling, I said I felt that he had pressured me to enter the ministry. His response shook me: “On the contrary, I wanted you to go into business with me.”

Realistically, it was far too late. His disability had long past shut down Turner Distributing; the little refrigerated truck gone, the hot dog steamers sold, and the customers now had other vendors.

Like so many points in life, one turned me toward another future. When I succumbed to the merciless lure of the southern Methodist Church and became a pre-ministerial student, selling hot dogs on Jacksonville Beach boardwalk fell by the wayside.

As they say in 12-Step groups,looking back on “shoulda, woulda, coulda” makes no sense. Yet it still intrigues me, this Father’s Day, to think of many more driving all over Jacksonville with my Dad


Are you like me or is your father still around? If so and you can, at least chat with him and find out where you might have had past misunderstandings. It will enrich both of you.

There Are No Winners In The Race Against Time

…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…”

A few weeks ago, when I was feeling morose, I said to my wife, “I feel my time is running out.” To which she responded, “Oh boo, it is for all of us.”

I knew my preacher spouse is profound, every Sunday I am more and more impressed. But this gem is one for the ages.


I am 80. People don’t live too much longer than that. Sure, there are plenty of nonagenarians and if I get there, I will shoot for 100.

Meanwhile, making it to next week feels challenging enough. Here are some thoughts about that.


Slow and Steady Wins the Race

As a former marathoner, I always cheered for the tortoise. I ran, but in the middle of the pack.

I raced for my personal win. No headlines noted it. I knew, though.

That is why, these days, I consider walking to the end of the block and back a victory.

Stopping for Rest is Just Fine

That same profound wife went into a cleaning frenzy yesterday, with significant results. I didn’t take part.

Our son and I spruced up the kitchen floor, but I had to stop often to relieve my back pain.

I was quickly back to my recliner, reading, or doing the New York Timescrossword puzzle. Could I give the excuse, “I was trying to keep out of the way?”

Maybe It Isn’t a Race At All

We have a small clock on our bedroom wall, and sometimes at night, I hear it. Tick, tick, tick, second by second. Sometimes it needs a new battery but otherwise is just ticks along.

Isn’t this the way our time goes? We look forward to something, expecting future joys but speeding too fast to see the ‘now.’

Who Really Wants to Know Where It Ends?

One of my races was Grandma’s, along the Lake Superior shore in Minnesota. It is a beautiful course that had a unique aspect. You could see the finish from the start. Although it began in Two Harbors, there, 26.2 miles away, was the Duluth skyline.

It was a mixed blessing. It was discouraging because Duluth didn’t seem to get closer. That same perception, however, made me keep my eyes on the lake and the cheering people along the way.


Astoundingly, maybe, this race against/with time is one where we are all participants. You can’t be a spectator. So instead of grinding it out, set your own pace. The only goal is to take one stride at a time.

A Letter to My 90-Year-Old Self

Right now will be my ‘distant’ past in 10 years; how will I feel about it?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Dear Much Older Warren:

If you are reading this, you made it!

Even so, you will recall there were many times it didn’t seem to be happening.

Remember COVID-19, when hibernation switched from pleasant to burdensome? It was a challenge to be both happy your home was virus-free while heartbroken about the deaths around the world.

I bet you haven’t forgotten the infamous colonoscopy shortly before your 81st birthday, either, have you? It was elective because you have always appreciated excellent health care. But fun? Not so much.

Then, how about the excruciating night of November 3, 2020? You knew Trump would go down, but you were haunted by the Ghost of 2016, so it never seemed a sure thing.


So, how will you look back on your eighties?

If it is anything like the previous decades, it will seem just a blink of an eye. Living with intention doesn’t stop time.

It didn’t help to read ‘inspirational’ quotes, did it? 
*Cheer up, things could be worse.
*Growing old ain’t for sissies.
*Age is only a number.
Puh-leeze!

The makeshift workout routine made a big difference. Not Crossfit or some other torture, but just enough.

Then, how do you evaluate a loving partner? Or kind and caring children? I absolutely know they bolstered my spirit many, many times.


So now what? Shoot for 100? It depends.

Quality of life, as they call it, is the key. If you can still walk, can shower and dress yourself, don’t put too fine a point on it. After all, 90 is old.

Another factor, tied for the first position, is your relationship status. Should you be coming up on your fiftieth anniversary, you are good. Otherwise, how did you even make it this far?

It is essential to dismiss thoughts of death because they will drag you down. As our dear friend, Bill Coffin once said, “I have too much to do in this world to worry about the next.”


Do I have any advice? Yeah. Let the past be the past and get on with it. Who knows, maybe you will see 2040.

Sincerely, Your 80-year-old Self

No Playlists for the 80-year-old Man

Songwriters know what resonates with their listeners who are mostly young.


In my mornings, I get up around 7 AM and see if I can stand without falling. If so, I head to the bathroom to pee and get a swig of Listerine.

Then, it’s over to the scale to either perk me up or remind me today is the day to go easy on the chocolate milkshakes.

Back to my side of the bed, I dress in morning gear: pajama-type pants, a top in a complimentary color, and socks to wear with slip-on loafers.

I grab my Apple watch from its charger and put my iPhone in my pocket.

Next is the daily medication sorting. Ziploc snack bag for those I will take around noon and just pick up three or four to take in the bathroom.

There, I spit out the Listerine, which has lost its sting anyhow, and brush my teeth. (You don’t know how much I look forward to the hygienist complementing my oral care)

Now it is time to get into writing action, so I head over to my computer desk to turn on the lamp and my iMac.

While it boots up, I put some bird seed in the window feeder and pour a mug of coffee. (Since my spouse has set up the coffee maker the night before, and because I just want to be nice; I take a mug to her in the bedroom)

Back at the computer, I sort the various auto-logon windows, put on my wireless headset, and open Apple Music.

Now, what do I listen to? I enjoy female jazz artists the best but their lyrics? Not so much. New love, lost love, seeking love, remembering love, never finding love.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for love in whatever form but there are no love songs that celebrate what a couple has after forty years of marriage. (Except perhaps Leonard Cohen’s “If I Didn’t Have Your Love.” Look up the lyrics.)

When one of us dies, the other may find new love but nothing like what we have. Nor will Apple Music have any lyrics to apply to that relationship.

Meanwhile, maybe there still can be a playlist for the 80-year-old man, not just the young love stuff. Classic rock, for example, with its anti-establishment rhetoric and all the freedom songs which are still very much needed today.

Of course, we could stick to instrumental music. Huh.

No More Skipping Downstairs

Photo by Pau Casals on Unsplash

When even walking is a challenge, chasing suspects through ancient cities, up and down ladders, and across rooftops is, well…, impossible


I  love to watch detective and spy thrillers. Perhaps it is a subconscious desire to be one of those martial arts experts who can run at top speed, up and down stairways, jumping across alleys to the next rooftop.

I did run 12 marathons in my 40s but nowhere at a maximum sprint. Plus, at my height and weight, I would have to have some superpower to compete.

To be completely honest, at my age, any stairway is now a big challenge for me.


About a year ago, mindlessly coming up from the basement to the outside patio, I tripped on the top step and tore my right quadriceps tendon. I am not going to describe the pain right now but suffice it to say, it was significant.

A week later, a skilled surgeon laced it back to my kneecap, put me in a leg immobilizer, and sent me to the physical therapist. For weeks, I was not allowed to bend my leg more than thirty degrees.


For some years now, I have been aware of tripping and falling but who takes that seriously until something like this happens?

It wasn’t enough to wake me up when I walked out of a convenience store and missed a little step and fell down to the parking lot. Nor did I get the message the time I stopped the rental bicycle at the curb and fell right over on the sidewalk.


Arriving at a stairway these days, I stop and carefully decide what to do. Number one consideration: railings. If there are none, I might have to find another way to go.

Secondly, I force myself to slow down. Zipping up and down without thinking was my downfall. (Pun intended)

Then, focus. I try not to think of anything else until I get to bottom and then only when I make sure I have gotten all the way down.


I know I speak for a lot of us at these later years of life. As much as we might love to do so, there will be no skipping down the stairs or jogging up two steps at a time.

But, so what? If we can still get up and down without the use of an elevator, I think we have it made. Agreed

Think I missed my 70s

Can ten years pass that quickly? Maybe I need to wake up.

When I turned seventy, Obama had just become the President of the United States. I was about to launch my ‘career’ as a school bus driver in our college town transporting nice kids to good schools.

When our family wanted big box stores or a multiplex theater, the city was only about 10 miles away. The airport could be reached in less than an hour.

The Connecticut River was a part of the incredible beauty of our place. Various critters visited our deck to eat birdseed and giant white pines surrounded us.

I am proud to say that exercise and diet helped me stay active. Great medical facilities offered solutions to many of my health problems and allowed me to avoid some of the natural aging issues. I didn’t consider myself ‘old’ at all.


In short, I had it made, right? Of course not; it doesn’t work that way. My seventies had their own pitfalls, roadblocks, and detours.


My school bus was exponentially longer than our Ford Focus and I backed into objects more than once. A hibernating problem from my clergy days raised its ugly headed and did not get resolved.

We tearfully dropped off our oldest child at college, a thousand miles away. My spouse began law school while maintaining her job as the pastor of a big church.

We moved from New England to the Midwest and after three not-so-happy years, moved back.


Whew, the years zipped by. I wish I had been more aware of some of the events in my life. On the other hand, as I reconsider them, I wasn’t completely oblivious. In a longer memoir, I could explain just how rich my seventies turned out. I didn’t miss too much.


So, this is obviously not how I envision my seventies. Instead, more a retrospective, one which reminds me that it was ‘life as usual’. What’s wrong with that? Consider, as they used to say, the alternative.

Maybe next time, I might write about how I envision my eighties. I hope they are not always as challenging as my seventies but I would welcome all the positive experiences.

It won’t happen that way but so what? As I get closer to sunset, I try to live one day at a time. Every little bit is rich experience. It is life.

I have lived 80 years but have I learned anything?

Actually, I have found no sane way to avoid aging, so I am going to refine my eldership before I run completely out of time

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Once during a Q & A session at a political forum, a woman prefaced her question by saying “Astonishingly, I turned 80 last week.” I now know exactly what she meant because I just did, too.It is a cliché that we feel one age in our mind, but we are chronologically another. Or as the legendary pitcher, Satchel Paige, famously said, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?”

Meanwhile there are mirrors, group photos, upgraded pains, and the nice, but sometimes a bit tongue-in-cheek, compliments: “You can’t be 80! I would have never guessed that.”

So, what now? I will call myself an ‘elder’. I don’t really seem to have much wisdom. I do have some, even though much of it seems to have come lately. Maybe one has to trade off: One gem for each new ache.

So, here are a few I have accumulated.


Screw guilt

*Have you murdered someone? No? Then forget all that junk from your past.

In 12 Step programs, essential work is to “take a personal inventory” and then to let it go and move on. Not possible, you say? Then try to change the past. Talk about impossible.

Shame is in the eye of the experiencer

Sometimes it is natural to feel ashamed, but ask yourself, why?

Let’s say, no one knows or ever will know that about which you are ashamed. So, try this: Stand in front of a mirror and repeat after me, Shame begone!

Ok is just OK

A relentless TV commercial makes fun of people who are not perfect. “Just OK is not OK, but is that true?

While there are some things that have to be almost exactly right but for most of what we do or are, OK is definitely enough.

Being in control is a hopeless quest

If you have ever been called a “control freak”, sit down and ponder that accusation.

This wisdom came from my daughter. I was once half worrying and half grieving over someone’s situation. When I told her how I was feeling, she simply said, “You can’t control anything in life.” A radical statement but simply true.


That’s it for now but after writing this, I remember that “I know a lot of things because I have seen a lot of things.” That phrase may be the best definition of elderhood. If you are anything like me, I bet you have much wisdom, too


(*If you have actually murdered someone, “that is above my paygrade.” Sorry)

“Rage against the dying of the light?” or “Let go?”

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Soon bears us all away;
We fly forgotten, as a dream
Fades at the opening day.
-Issac Watts, 1719; alt

It used to annoy me when someone use “passed away” for “died.” I am glad to say I have come to see that everyone can, and maybe should, use any euphemism that helps in grief.

Changing my mind may have to do with my age.

Thirty-five years ago, in a small group of Unitarian University clergy, I took part in a mini-debate about whether, as Dylan Thomas wrote, we should “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” or simply, as the 12 Step phrase reminds us, just “Let go, let god.” As I have hinted, I argued that we ought not “go gentle into that good night” while others, with the gray hair I now possess, suggested that faith, and a longer view, made them see that dying should be not a struggle but an acceptance.

There are certainly tragic deaths for which “passed away” seems a ridiculous description. School shootings, tsunamis, childhood cancer, just to mention a few, are events for which “died” is the only appropriate word.

But there are, every day, the examples of humans who have simply gone the way of all creatures. A stalwart church member in Hanover was over a hundred at the end. A dear Bailey family friend just went at over a hundred My mother was 96. It is just the way life is.

This concept is more difficult for those who are left behind. No matter how old the person may be we still never want that day to come. I thought this when we lost Bill Coffin and, in another way, when  George Carlin had a fatal heart attack. What they were to us and their closest love ones make the passing away to be filled with utter loss.

There never really is enough time and as we approach the end of our days, that becomes more poignant. For me, the concept of passing away which comes to us all, helps me to use the time I do have in a more meaningful way.

The days of our lives

dad, sisters and i cropped
My father and his children. c. 1956

On New Year’s Eve we had a funeral at 2nd Church Newton. We celebrated the life of a man who was 106 years old, born in December of 1912.

Had my father not died at an early age he would have been 106, too. In fact, his birthday was actually on December 31, 1912. He jokingly told us that he wasn’t sure how old he was, especially since was born near midnight. Born in ’12, at 11:30 PM, 106; born in ’13, at 12:30 AM, 107? Not really but fun to think about and no wonder it was confusing.

He had a short life ending with couple of heart attacks, the first at age 53 and the fatal one at 56. He smoked as most men did then and had a nerve disease that required him to start using a walker in his 40’s. Cardiac imaging and coronary artery bypass surgery were in their infancy but who knows how those advancements would  have helped anyhow.

I guess you could say that I was close to my father. I worked with him in his wholesale hot dog business in my high school years. Memories of delivering many seven pound boxes of bulk wieners on the Jacksonville Beach boardwalk are seared into my brain.

I have outlived my father by quite a few years but does more time mean that much? I have good quality of life, all in all, I have been able to take advantage of modern medicine. I share life with a wonderful woman who is the mother of our two great children.  They undoubtedly want me to stick around and I plan to do my best. So for them if not for me, added years would be excellent

I  have no meaningful answers but about the simplest yet most profound way to see it is this: “The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.” –Martin Luther King

************

Afterthought: One memory I treasure more than others is when years later he told me that to the contrary, he hadn’t pushed me into the ministry. He had hoped I would take over Turner Distributing Company.

 

Slow and steady wins the race

No one would have ever associated the word “meticulous” with me. “Measure twice, cut once”? Ha, not me. Before the days of computers, I was a bank teller once and my claim to (in)fame was that  my drawer never seemed to balance at the end of the day. Can I ever find a tool I need for a little DIY? So what, just go get another one. Well, you get the picture.

The Tortoise And The Hare
That’s me with the carrot

But then something happened, the fault of the stairs.

From the summer of 2015 until this past August, we lived in apartment buildings with elevators. There were of course curbs, steps to a church entrance, and quite a few places where finding the accessible path was mysterious but mainly, I had no stairs to worry about.

We now live in a parsonage that has four levels and a significant set of front and back porch stairs. Oh and, as you might guess, no elevator or ramp. So, along with what might be called ‘normal aging’ unsteadiness, this house changed my approach. I now think carefully approaching the stairs, I make sure I have free hand to put on the railing, and take each step all by itself.

You see, I don’t want to fall. I’ve “been there, done that” as they say. Once a few years ago, I stepped down from the low stone wall in our driveway in New Hampshire and crashed. It always comes as an unbelievable surprise so, being unprepared, my forehead hit the asphalt. Fortunately, I was still conscious and could get to the kitchen for ice. On another occasion, in the Twin Cities, riding a rental bike I attempted to dismount and fell instead. A bit embarrassing but no too serious. Then there was the time, in our apartment parking space, when I tripped on some broken concrete and landed on my knee. The worse part of that one was the hole in my new jeans. (Luckily, my spouse is an expert seamstress so she patched them, at least)

After a certain age, falls become much more of an issue. It is logical but very annoying, if you want to know. The Notorious RBG fell recently and broke ribs. Leonard Cohen’s death was a result a fall. In our family, the person we call ‘Gma’ just fell and broke her collarbone. Not just annoying, but a dangerous thing to do.

Being careful goes against my grain but then again, so does killing myself. Now days, call me, meticulous.