As I get older, I appreciate older people more and like being around them.
As I get older (I really shouldn’t write “get” as at nearly 64 years of age, I AM older!) I appreciate older people more and like being around them. It makes sense. I’m now a part of the elder tribe.
We humans have broken down into tribes, clans — ultimately countries — since time immemorial. We do so feeling more comfortable with “our own kind,” sharing like traits, experiences and cultures. I was in the “know nothing” tribe when I was younger, but if I had listened to a few members of the elder tribe I could have learned a few things that I ended up having to learn on my own. I had a starring role in the old adage, “Some of us learn from the mistakes of others. The rest of us have to be the others.”
Had I listened I could have learned things like our life is not really between the moments of our birth and death. I know now (and have learned from elder tribe members) that our life really is between now and our next breath. The present — the here and now — is all the life we’re ever really promised to have, so we need to appreciate every breath we are blessed to take.
Ah, but I was too fascinated with my young life and all the years I assumed I had left to listen to members of the elder tribe. I’m not certain when that changed, but change it gradually did as it will ultimately change for all those blessed to live long enough to be accepted into the elder tribe.
This change was brought home to me recently when I visited my mother and father-in-law residing in an assisted living facility in Sarasota, Florida. My mother-in-law lives in the assisted living side of this facility, my father-in-law separately in the dementia unit, even though they see each other every day. She has Parkinson’s disease and his memory — that memory encompassing the past 50 years or so — is almost gone.
When I was younger, I would have seen such a place as a sad place, but not so much now. The people there are living and appreciating each day the best they can and aren’t sweating the small stuff — another lesson I might have learned if I had listened to members of the elder tribe when I was younger.
Take Charlie, my father-in-law, for instance. He doesn’t remember much, even forgetting his wife’s name, remembering her instead as his first wife whom he divorced 60 years ago or so, a fact that seems to neither bother him nor my mother-in-law, the angel of a woman she is.
Charlie’s memory from 50 years ago to present is … well, it’s shot. But Charlie, who recently turned 92, landed on 6 June 1944 — D-Day — in Normandy, France. He remembers the details of this landing, disgorging tanks and troops on Juno Beach while serving aboard LST 529 as a U.S. Navy corpsman, like it was yesterday. Every time I’m blessed to talk with Charlie about his Navy career I learn another tidbit about his life and times.
One of Charlie’s friends is Reno. Charlie didn’t’ know him in 1944 and doesn’t remember his name today, but Reno landed at Omaha Beach on the same day Charlie landed at Juno. Like Charlie, Reno lived a memorable life and though suffering from the ravages of old age now he, too, doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Reno appreciates each breath he continues to take at 95 years of age and doesn’t care much that Charlie can’t remember his name.
Reno was drafted by the Chicago White Sox and played in the minor leagues until drafted in 1941 where he served with Patton’s 3rd Army, winning a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and three Purple Hearts. He credits his short, professional baseball career with saving his life and the lives of his platoon mates when he pitched a grenade into a German machinegun nest for a game-winning strikeout with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
Charlie’s roommate in the dementia unit is Cliff. Soft classical music plays next to his bed where he sleeps much of the day. One might be uncomfortable with Cliff’s “air conducting” in bed when he’s awake, until one learns of Cliff’s distinguished career as a classical concert conductor and understands the best memories he retains are those of his music and his concert leadership.
Cliff’s “air conducting” reminded me of another lesson I might have learned from the elder tribe if I had listened when I was younger: a lifetime isn’t very long. Had I listened I could have learned then what I know now, that even if we get more than that next moment, adding them all together, there are only so many tomorrows. We should conduct ourselves accordingly, not sweat the small stuff, make the best of each tomorrow, and not waste a single one of them.
Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.