Wisdom is the sum of the reflective and reflexive understandings that settle deep in one’s soul after a long journey — a life adventure peppered with laughter, tears, fear, foolishness, joy, doubt, amazement and wonder. Pay attention to those who have traveled before you. Ask questions and listen with your whole being. Like echoes in a canyon, the lessons will continue whispering their meaning.
What follows is Part I of a five-part essay on health and wellness for seniors.
“You hold in your hand the precious gift of all—the gift of life. You can nuture and grow it, or you can crumble it and throw it away. Either way, it’s yours.”
– O.E. Samuelson, 1909-1977, Age, 68
I’m sitting in the school nurse’s office at Tappan Junior High school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Why? Because I’m too worried to remain in class. I need to talk with someone. The nurse is kind; she makes me feel safe. “It will be okay, Michael,” she says.
My father, Orville Samuelson, is at the University of Michigan Hospital having a cancerous lung removed. A heavy smoker all of his life, my dad, at 53, is only beginning to suffer the consequences of poor lifestyle choices. I’m 15 and just beginning to follow his example.
As a result of zillions of puffs on Winston cigarettes and a lifetime of alcohol abuse, my dad’s next 15 years were filled with pain, frustration, a prescription drug induced haze, and a zillion more puffs on Winston cigarettes. Oh, he has bursts of creativity (he is the original Mr. fix it) and fleeting moments of pleasure, but after that spring day, the fire fades from his spirit as the energy drains from his body.
Over the years, additional surgeries pull us back to the University of Michigan Hospital, including a series of horrific amputations for peripheral artery disease. The years of smoking have broken down the vessels needed to bring blood to his toes and feet. It eventually results in gangrene, leading to the removal of a toe, a foot, one leg, and finally the other leg. He stops drinking but keep smoking. He has one more burst of energy and creativity: he rigs his old Buick Electra 225 to operate with hand controls. This illusion of freedom is a dream that briefly puts the sparkle back in his eyes. Unfortunately, he has time for only a couple of test runs before he dies at the University of Michigan Hospital at the age of 68. Invasive melanoma has been diagnosed in his stumps, and his heart can no longer take the assaults.
I remember him as a decent man who loved his family, worked hard, and did his best. He certainly drank and smoked to excess but over that same 15 years so did I.
My father was not a philosophical man, nor, true to his Swedish heritage, did he show much affection or emotion. But shortly before he died, he beckoned me close to his bedside and spoke words I’ll never forget. He took my hand, looked at me with hollow, steel gray eyes, and said, with both sadness and parental urgency:
”In your hand you hold most precious gift of all–the gift of life. You can nurture and grow it, or you can crumble it and throw it away. Either way, it’s yours.”
This was both advice and confession. I was 30 years old, and throughout my entire life, that was the only direct guidance I ever got from my dad. But, it was powerful, and—for the most part—it’s held over the past 33+ years.
So Many Questions Never Asked…Most Not Even Considered. Thirty-three years. That’s a lot of time. If I (we) had a “Do-Over” what would I ask him? What would I want to know? What did I need to know? What would he tell me? …
- “I’m thinking about starting a business on my own. What do you think?”
- “Another baby on the way. Whoa. What do I do now?”
- “Any tips for not going crazy being away from home, living out of a suitcase?”
- “How do I fix this broken window pane?”
- “What was my grandfather like?” “Were you and him close?” “How about your mom?”
- “In this picture, who is the funny-looking guy with the handle bar mustache?
- “What was it like to live through the Great Depression?”
- “Did you know about the concentration camps?”
- “What did you do in Montana with the DPW CCC?”
- “What went through your head when you were told you had lung cancer?”
- “How did you get booze during Prohibition?”
- “Yours was a time of segregation and open racism. How did you feel about that?”
- “What can you tell me about our heritage?”
- “What was your biggest regret?” “Your greatest joy?” What were your darkest fears?”
- “Did you believe in God?” “Why?”
- “What did you do when you were afraid that you couldn’t make the house payment?”
- “Another baby. Two boys and a girl. Wow. How did you do it?”
- “Dad, if you had a Life Do-Over what would you do over?”
- “We think Hillary is starting menopause. Any advice!?!”
- “How did you keep it together when my sister, your daughter, died?”
Of course, the above just scratches the surface. There are hundreds of things I wish we had talked about. Some profound, most very basic. The Walton’s kind of stuff. The point is that I never had (took) the opportunity to ask those questions. I never sat on a bench with my dad and started a sentence with, “What do you think about…,” “Can I ask you a personal question…,” “Please, help me figure out…,” “I’m quite upset and concerned about…,” “You’re going to think this is nuts, but, I have an idea…what do you think?”
Major Cliché Warning: Life is too short. And, too unpredictable. Sometime this week find mom or dad or Bill down the street or Mary in the next cubicle or that nice old (CI) neighbor and ask a couple questions. They don’t have to be “Meaning of Life” questions, just questions about the road they’ve traveled…and the one that stretches out in front of you.
“And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home dad?
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then son
You know we’ll have a good time then…”
– Harry Chapin, “Cat’s in the Cradle”
Part II: I’m Not Old…I’m Chronologically Superior!
Part III: CS Members Only – Qualifications
Part IV: Caution – Your Workforce and Consumer Base Are Ageing
Part V: Summary – So What?