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

On Being 80 in the Time of Coronavirus

Sheltering at home is easier at my age but the challenge is other people.

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

Over the last year, because of surgeries, I have had to stay home, often confined to my recliner. So, this pandemic hasn’t caused me to change my daily routine that much.

What it has done is demand a new perspective, or at the very least, a reframing.


Normally, there is not much I have to do, except brush my teeth and, every so often, shower.

So, I can sit in front of my iMac to flip between Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Then when I feel more ambitious, check out the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Boston Globe.

By this time, I usually start feeling hungry and shut down the computer to wander into the kitchen. Big decisions await. Cereal and toast? Eggs? Maybe just a bologna and cheese sandwich, to carry with me to my recliner.

And so on, and so on.


Now, that routine has been disrupted, not necessarily physically but emotionally, by the Coronavirus pandemic.

In a state of what amounts to self-indulgent hibernation, I often let quirks of my family annoy me. Clearly, it really shouldn’t take a pandemic to change that waste of emotional energy.

More importantly, the big question remains, can I continue sitting in my chair focusing inward when there are things I can do for others facing this pandemic?

That is a rhetorical query, of course, because there are ways to reach out.


Here are some:

Humor

Careful not to be mean spirited, I can attempt to interject light-heartedness when needed. I say ‘attempt’ because some of my “being funny” can be very annoying.

Kindness

Sometimes, I am not pleasant because I’m not thinking. If I did, it would be easy enough to stop and wonder if that is how I would like to be treated.

Connection (1)

As much as we sometimes rue “screen time” and are insulted by trolls, the Internet is a valuable tool to reach out to an unlimited number of others.

Connection (2)

Remember talking with someone on the phone? Texts and emails are important but calling someone and actually speaking with them can make a huge difference.


Taking these approaches can be tricky and won’t always work. Thus as counterintuitive as it might be, we might have to stop trying so hard. We’ve done enough. Sheltering in place is a big challenge so give yourself permission to slack off some of the time.

The challenge of this crisis has so many national and global aspects that it can be overwhelming. We need to narrow it down for us in our home. The above suggestions are a way of doing that. Try them.

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)

Grieving for ourselves

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

The first time I had general anesthesia for surgery, I was sure I was going to die. I looked for my life insurance information, began to compose in my head final letters to my family, dug around in my clutter to discard embarrassing items(!), and gave last cuddles to our cats.

OK, so I didn’t die, then. I am now eighty years old and have elected to have another serious surgery. An excellent doctor assures me that it will seriously improve my quality of life. So in my quest to live until my spouse’s student loans are paid off (That long? Why yes), I am going to put my life into the hands of another anesthesiologist.

I have no desire, right now, to go through all that end-of-life rigmarole that I did the first time. It does, however, cause me to ponder how many of us face the ultimate event.

Jeopardy host, Alex Trebek, is dealing with pancreatic cancer. In a personal comment recently, he talked about it in this way:

Hey guys. I’m 79-years-old. I’ve had one hell of a good life. And I’ve enjoyed it … the thought of passing on doesn’t frighten me, it doesn’t. Other things do, the affect it will have on my loved ones … it makes me sad. But the thought of myself moving on, hey folks, it comes with the territory.”

Trebek expresses the same sentiment that my father did decades ago and an approach that resonates with my experience as well. Dying itself, unimaginable, at any rate, isn’t nearly as concerning as how my death will affect my loved ones.

Ira Byock, M.D., in his book, The Four Things That Matter Most, gives us some simple, but profound suggestions about how to prepare. Be ready to talk with those closest to you, whether expressing or listening, and use these four basic statements to shape the conversation:

“Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.”

I call this “grieving for ourselves.” I don’t know if that is how you perceive it but, for me, it makes all this less frightening. It also helps me with my determination to let anxiety go, at every step of the way.

Aging can be painless

A few years ago I performed a wedding in a couple’s rural New Hampshire home. It was simple and meaningful and I felt good about it.  Not too long after that, one of them posted a story about getting their license and deciding how and where to be married. In the article she referred to me as “…the elderly justice of the peace…” Now, I would like to say that I don’t dwell on disconcerting comments about my age and indeed it wasn’t too long before I forgot it but it did, in fact, bother me. After all who wants to get old,  especially when that means that time is more likely to be running out? I am sure there are plenty of older people who are coping better than I but let me run some thoughts about aging by you.

Almost everyone I have asked agrees that they don’t feel their age. Sure, when trying to jog across a busy intersection or stoop over to pick up something dropped on the floor, the physical reality rears its ugly head but otherwise we feel as young as ever. That’s a good thing especially when younger people don’t reject you based on numbers of wrinkles or gray hairs. Of course, lots of them do but I know hundreds who don’t. Forgetting what year one is born in and simply being oneself works wonders.

Ally Waters who graduated from high school with my son, Joseph
Ally Waters
who graduated from high school
with my son, Joseph

Another important thing to remember, as macabre as it sounds, is that we all die, some earlier and some later. Things like not smoking, watching your weight, eating less junk food, and exercising every day are critical. However, it is not that such activities will protect you from dying, it is they will most likely make living more fun.

Fun, indeed plus joy, excitement, anticipation, love, these are things that make aging painless and they are not that hard to find anytime, anyplace. I have a silly cat who expects to be lifted to the table every morning when I sit down at my computer so that he can look at the window. Then after he accounts for all the chipmunks he turns around and starts a loud purr while he reaches out and touches me on the shoulder. Now, tell me, how in the world can you think about getting old with a pet like him around?

Image

 

Another thing to do is engage people as you go about your day. When I ordered a couple of pastries at Starbucks this morning, I asked for them to be put in a bag to which the twenty something barista responded “Oh, you don’t want me to throw them at you?” I had a rejoinder but that didn’t matter. What really counts is that she felt she could say that in fun.

I don’t remember exactly when I first really, really got that some day I would no longer be here. I do recall it was an adrenalin rush like none other. It turned out to be OK though because it sparked in me a subtle but actual new appreciation of the days that I did have while I am still here.

Andy Rooney, the wonderful 60 Minutes curmudgeon was interviewed after his retirement. One of the questions was “Do you think about dying?” His answer is classic “Yes and I don’t  like it.”

And so it goes