My father turned 99 this year, and a couple weeks ago I turned 65, so it won’t surprise you that I have lately thought much about aging.
I don’t feel 65, or even 55, and some days not even 35, and since I rise at 2 a.m. I have the luxury of blaming fatigue on my hours rather than my years. Plus, how can you think of yourself as senior when your father is still extant?
But while my dad also has the gift of youth, he is frailer than before, prone to falls, his sometimes useful deafness intruded upon by entreaties to start using a walker, else how can he be expected to reach 100?
For years I jokingly – well, I thought I was kidding – told him he needs to last to 100 to set an example for his children. Somewhere along the line he began to buy into that. At 97 he said he had lived long enough; at 99 he began looking forward to his 100th birthday party.
Since Dad lives in Maryland with my sister Martha and her family, I see him once a year and communicate by email and letter the rest of the time – I email, he writes. Deciphering his handwriting is useful training for my future career working with ancient Egyptian cuneiform, though the pharaoh’s clerks had better penmanship.
When we visit face-to-face, Dad fills me in on his various ailments, not because he finds them interesting but because he finds them instructive. “This is what you can expect,” he explains. I recognize this for what it is, having read the journals of Lewis & Clark. Dad is a scout, telling me what lies ahead. And not necessarily so far ahead as 99, either: I am graying more slowly than most men, but faster than Dad did. I’ll blame that on the 2 a.m. alarm, too, if you have no objection.
Dad has had help living this long. One of his doctors took Dad as a patient soon out of medical school. Now he’s retirement age, but I think he lingers to care for Dad, who stands (albeit with a cane) as living proof that he has been a sawbones of quality. When Dad goes, we should have that doctor at the funeral to take a bow or something.
Dad has not always taken care for his health. He smoked heavily until his forties when, tired of Mother’s nagging (Mother could read the New England Journal of Medicine and actually understand it, which is more than I can say) amplified by six children as mixed chorus, he took a three-week vacation from his job as a foreman at Kaiser Aluminum and quit cold turkey, first time, permanently, no patches, no gum.
One thing that probably helped Dad last this long was a positive mental attitude, and I hope this is true because I do, too. He also has great confidence in his own rightness, though, and if I ever had that quality it was beaten out of me by four decades in journalism, which teaches you that no matter how much you think you know something, the next interview will show you that you didn’t. On the other hand, I never smoked, not even pot.
Turning 65, the so-called retirement age, naturally provides another reason to mull this stuff over. In case you didn’t know, the government of Germany, in the late 1800s, set up the first quasi Social Security system, with 65 as the kick-off for benefits. And in case you didn’t know, the reason for choosing 65 was that only half of German citizens made it that long. If it were invented for the first time today, it would be 85.
For part of my adult life I aspired to be a radio network news anchor, and when I achieved that goal I wanted merely to get to a bigger network. When I started life anew in Hawaii and did television for the first time in my fifties, I enjoyed my work better (though it had been enjoyable before) and felt like I was doing some good. And in the back of my mind the goal became, “If you should die tomorrow, are you satisfied?”
But seeing Dad reach 99, and being only 65 myself, I realize one needs a second question in the back of one’s mind: “If you live 30 more years, do you have plenty to do? And is it something you need to start now?”