I had a brief, quiet, intense conversation with a friend today. She had just lost another friend, a close one, to a sudden and tragic accident.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“Okay,” she replied, as she turned to go up the hallway. In a second, I knew better. “No, not okay.”
Her usually bright smile was strained, her voice soft, her features drawn.
That brief exchange, the sharing of feelings about trauma to mind, body, and soul, did what those exchanges almost always do to many of us. It triggered, instantly, my feelings and memories of the death of my father twenty four years ago.
As I have written elsewhere recently, I can’t help but wonder how dozens if not hundreds or even thousands of people are dealing with these kinds of reactions and feelings as we have been assaulted on every level by hate, destruction, and death. This on top of expected deaths from old age, deaths from illnesses that are not expected but are accepted, and accidents that leave us jarred, numb and questioning everything we’ve always held dear.
“Your father has collapsed.”
The call came at the worst time possible. We were moving into a new house, we needed to pack, and someone needed to watch the kids.
“I don’t know. Your mother is with him. They’re taking him to the hospital now. I don’t know.”
I am in the car in what feels like minutes. I don’t think I even take a toothbrush, although I really don’t remember.
“Call and let me know as soon as you find out something. We’ll be fine heel. Go.”
“Take all the time you need. We’ll cover things here. Don’t worry. You need to be with your mother. Go.”
Racing down the interstate in slow motion. Time flying by as it stands stock still. Tears and prayers and more prayers and more tears and time flying by with the miles.
“Don’t you die on me. Don’t you die before I get there. Hang on until I get there.”
There are still so many things unsaid. The scenery blurs, clears, blurs, clears, blurs, clears. My eyelids are the windshield wipers for my soul. Is it raining outside? No, it is raining inside. Come in out of the rain. I can’t. I’m getting soaked.
“Don’t you dare die on me.”
The time in the hospital is a blur. The waiting room. The ICU. The doctor. The staff with their kind eyes and kinder manner. My mother is broken, silent in the corner. I have the knowledge but not the will. There are decisions to make.
“We can make him better. We can rebuild him.” A part of my brain laughs hysterically at the thought of the old television reference, so stark against the sunshiny darkness of his bed. Beep, beep, beep. We can never rebuild him. I have seen the scans. They show me because I am a doctor. I see the vast whiteness in his brain. Clean, pure, permanent. I know what this means. I do not want to be a doctor. Oh, God, not now.
I try to support my mother as we walk up the aisle in the church. I see little. I remember little. His mother, my grandmother.
“Oh, parents are not supposed to outlive their children. Oh, ohhhhhh.”
We travel. We talk and eat and visit with folks who have known me since birth.
“Oh, how your children have grown and I remember when your Daddy…”
They put him in the ground. It is hot. Why do people die in the summer, that hysterical part of my brain laughs, way off in the distance. It laughs and laughs so that it will not cry. They put him in the ground. My little sister is there, off to his side. Others are already there waiting for him. Waiting for all of us, I think. It is so hot and the hole in my chest is so huge that I cannot get enough air. I am drowning in the middle Georgia sunshine.
Six days later I am working in an air conditioned emotional bubble. I do what I know how to do the best I know how to do it.
Six months later, I open my closet door and see the stack of papers there on the floor beside the filing cabinet. Odd, I think. That’s not like me. I sit down and go through them, filing and getting things back in order. I feel like I have just awakened from a half year’s dream. No. A nightmare.
Twenty four years later, I think about him every day. Every. Single. Day. It is not unpleasant. It is not painful. The scar over the huge chest wound is thin and tenuous, but it holds.
When change jingles in my pocket, or when someone mispronounces a word the way he did, I smile. When I hold my grandchildren in my arms, the way he held his the day he died, I feel proud. He is here with me. He will always be with me.
As my mother once described it, I am not happy with what happened, but I am content.
This is grief.
This is life.
My father had that nineteen-sixties-middle-manager-in-a-textile-mill sense of style that was an affront to his teenaged son at the time. His thinning hair, which he so desperately tried to save by throwing money at shyster companies shipping box after box of plastic-bottled, follicle-saving goo, was unconvincingly coiffed in a rooster style combover that was hilarious and tragic at the same time. His half-sleeved Dacron polyester shirts, always white, always sported a pocket protector, or if not that, at least a naked pen or three. The pants were nondescript, belted. Ah, but it was the shoes, the shoes that stick in my mind.
Those are the shoes I remember my father wearing. Brogues, as they used to be called in Europe, were initially shoes designed to be worn outside, for hunting and other over the ground pursuits. The pointed toe cap was extended back along the shoe in a shape that roughly resembled a wing, thus, wing tips. No matter the color pattern, the materials, as long as the toe cap was configured thusly, the shoe was a wing tip.
My father’s wing tips were the heavy, plodding kind that lasted forever, never seemed to wear out and oozed a work vibe, at least in my teenaged mind. I could not fathom a time in my life that I could ever possibly wear such a shoe, except perhaps when one foot was literally in the grave. They felt heavy in the hand, sturdy but in a rough, uncomfortable way, with severe waxy laces that also screamed responsible adult in a way that I could not bear at the time. They were the kind of shoes that went with the rest of the sixties wardrobe and denoted adulthood and a place to be at eight AM each morning.
Wingtips went along with the daily evening newspaper, the six o’clock news, used cars and retread tires, going to church on Sunday, eating fried chicken and taking a nap in stocking feet on the couch before church in the evening. My sixteen year old self, so confident and busy with my high school pursuits, thought my father stodgy, rigid, conformist and unimaginative. He provided for us, yes, certainly, but did he enjoy his life in those stiff leather shoes with the lines of perforations and chunky heels and hard soles? Was he trapped in those paid-for used cars and white shirts and trying to stop the passage of time by working those combovers down to the last few strands of hair that would reach the other side of his balding pate?
I don’t know. How I wish I could ask him.
Dad, we went to church this morning.
I drove my paid-for car, which I love and will keep until it no longer runs.
I wore my favorite white Oxford shirt and a pair of gray all season wool pants. Very practical and a staple of my adult wardrobe.
Shiny black, size eleven Cole Haan wingtips, one of the most comfortable pairs of dress shoes I own.
Some thoughts after reading an article this past month about working until we reach an older age.
As we work through our forties, fifties, and into our sixties, there are some definite advantages that continuing to work affords us.
One, we have established seniority. We have spent decades in the field of our choice, building up cred, establishing relationships, building bridges and alliances with others, and learning how to be successful. Seniority and the goodwill that it brings take time to establish, and should not be given up lightly. Once relinquished, they may not be so easily regained.
Experience is gold. Learning how to do something, the mechanics and the algorithmic nature of the procedure, is important. Even more important is learning the nuances, the finesse moves that separate a technician from an artist or craftsman.
Responsibility is another time honored trait that defines the older, more experience worker. When young, we tend to try to figure out how to save ourselves steps, time and work. When older, we recognize the importance of a job well done, no matter how long it takes or how difficult it is. We stick to it until it is done.
We develop varying degrees of indispensability as we age on the job. We become the go to person, the one who knows, the one that cannot be done without. We have the institutional memories, the comparisons to days gone by and the ability to use the past to fashion a stronger future.
We learn how to multitask and delegate as we age into a job. Instead of trying to do everything ourselves, we learn that enlisting the help of others and breaking a task into multiple pieces often helps things go more smoothy.
As we age and continue to work, we may keep the idea in our head that we want to be “in the room where it happens” for as long as possible. We are involved in the big decisions, the generation of important ideas, and we know that we help to run the shop and the show. It is difficult to decide when it is time to give that up.
If we transition to part time or less, what happens?
We may indeed feel less stress. We have more time. We can do more of what we want to do. Our job satisfaction may actually go up when we have less on our plates. We have the ability to try new things, to explore, to experiment.
Management may look on this new found freedom as decreased commitment to the organization or the job. Availability may be compromised, motivation may be called into question and we may find ourselves cut out of the herd when the big decisions are made.
We may struggle to maintain our relevency.
Things to ponder as I turn sixty two.
There is a postal outlet store and mailing facility close to my office that I often use to send packages via UPS or FedEx. It is operated by an older gentleman who is cut from very precise patriotic cloth. He is fit, well groomed, and always wears his work clothing just so. He drives a large American made sedan that often sports two proudly fluttering American flags on either side of the roof pillars.
One of his store rules is that anyone using his services to send UPS packages is subject to a one dollar fee in the week that they use the service. He collects this fee at the time the first UPS drop off is made for that week.
I took a return to him last week, setting the prelabeled box on the counter and chatting with him as he scanned the label and processed things in his computer.
“Okay now, this is UPS, of course. He’s already picked up today, so it’ll be tomorrow before it goes out.”
“No problem,” I said. “It’s a return, so no hurry.”
“Have you paid your dollar for this week, for UPS, you know?”
“No, sir, but you can scan my debit card for that if that’s okay.”
“No, no, there’s no reason to run your card for just a dollar. Just remember to bring it to me the next time you’re in,” he said, amiably.
“Oh, okay, thank you very much. I appreciate that,” I said, pocketing my wallet. “Just hold me to it.”
He looked me straight in the eye and said very matter of factly, ” Just make sure you hold yourself to it.”
Men of his generation, who carry themselves that way, dress neatly, drive American made sedans with flags on them and run their own businesses expect no less.
We should expect no less of ourselves as we move through life, but to hold ourselves accountable for the things that really matter.
The nerdier among you will recognize the quote above as being the last words spoken by Dave Bowman as he entered the monolith in the book version of 2001: a SpaceOdyssey. The line was not spoken in the original movie version of the story.
If you were to peruse the shelves of the book case upstairs, or the inside of my everyday carry bag for work, you would find notebooks of various sizes, materials and colors. The main daily working journal I am now using is a bright red Leuchtturm1917 one, slightly wider than the usual black Moleskine or orange Rhodia that I have historically favored.
It was a gift from my loving wife, brought back in her magic black suitcase from Europe, where she is always scanning for things I might like (usually involving chocolate, but not this time). Its cover is sturdy and bright, its paper is smooth and heavy enough to be substantial, but light enough to absorb moisture form the air if you sit outside on the front porch after days of heavy rain (yes, tonight).
It takes ink joyfully. Ideas glide onto its surface. Its dot matrix printed on the page allows for minimum structural organization and maximum creativity for those kinds of days. It has a table of contents section, numbered pages (250 plus end notes sheets), and a heavy stock storage pocket in the back. I have several dedicated pages in the very front and the very back that hold contents, hikes to research, budget items, and airport codes. (Yes, I am that guy.) I usually start each day at work with items on one or maybe two pages that I work on and process throughout the day, transferring some of the pertinent information to my digital information system, some of it being completely dealt with and put to bed in the analog world by the end of the day.
I really like this notebook (thank you again, my love), but I love what it is becoming since I started to use it on 5-9-19. The words in this book tell the story of my daily grind and my work life and thought processes, sure. The best part of the notebook, though, is the inside front cover, which is telling the story of my life. You will find a quote there that I am trying to follow this year. “Eat half, walk twice, give three times and love endlessly.” You will see a visitor pass from a local hospital where I needed to go see a patient for a court evaluation, the same hospital that I used to practice psychiatry in over thirty years ago. (The doctors lounge in that hospital had the best platter of huge, yummy cookies I have ever had anywhere, but that is another story for another day) It has a small purple sticker with a nautical motif that reminds me of our recent trip to Montreal QC and the Pointe-à-Callierè Montreal Archaeology and History Complex, a place filled with history and technology perfectly combined and on display for learning and pure visual pleasure.
In the middle of that front inside cover is a large sticker from the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area gift shop, which we visited after taking a ride in a Petersburg boat with the two oldest grandchildren from Chattanooga. There is nothing like the combination of local history, water, and nature to inspire any of us, all of us.
Off to the side are two odd looking additions to this page. One is tiny Verizon SIM card from an iPhone, and the other is the paperclip-like tool that helped to remove said SIM card from its thin plastic cradle. The tool is made of liquid metal, a technology that was bought by Apple years ago, but that it has only used to build these little tools, to the best of my knowledge.
One can often be better known to others by what he says as he introduces himself, but make no mistake, in my notebooks you can learn who I am in two ways.
One is by reading what I am thinking and how I am solving day to day problems that present themselves to me. The other is to watch the accumulation of pictorial evidence of where I’ve been, what I’ve experienced, and where I will be heading next. Pictures, stickers, quotes, tools, they are all part of who I am and why I am.
Only one way to describe my notebooks:
“My God, they’re full of stuff!”
D Day has come and gone once again, and we have remembered. It is a time to look forward as well as backward, as I wrote about this morning on my other blog, Musings.
I have another personal anniversary that I do not celebrate every year, but I do pause to remember and honor. My father died one year and one day after the fiftieth anniversary of D Day. Now, you might think this is an odd way to remember the date of your father’s death, but I love history, and the two just sort of go hand in hand for me.
My dad was sixty two when he died of a sudden cerebral aneurysm. He would have been sixty three on July 30th, had he lived. As I have previously written, I will celebrate my sixty second birthday this October 24th. Lord willing.
This year will prove to be a challenging one for me emotionally. It is hard to explain what it feels like to outlive one’s parent. (Again, I am being very optimistic and taking liberties here, assuming that I will!) I remember vividly seeing my grandmother sitting down at the funeral home at my dad’s service, making the statement that it was very unnatural to outlive one’s own child. There is a natural order to the world and to the greater universe that we all take for granted. You are born, you live, you may be blessed with children and grandchildren, you teach them to care for themselves and the planet, and then one day you make your exit in good time, as it should be. None of us, so far, has escaped that ultimate fate.
I fully expected to see my parents live to ripe old ages, well into their nineties and beyond. My mother is still working on that, thank God. She will be eighty four next month, and she is a young octogenarian at that! My father’s fate was different. He was cut down by a physical abnormality that no one saw coming, at a very early age. He had just retired, was trying to do other things to stay active and busy and was trying to find a “new groove”. It was not fair, of course, but what about life is, really?
I am happy, busy, working, writing, reading, hiking, traveling, driving, visiting with family and friends, planning vacations (Japan in October!) and assuming that life will go on, if not forever, then for a few decades to come. My wife adamantly and confidently predicts, no, commands, that I will live until I am ninety six. She also commands that she will exit this life first, but I think we both know that the odds of that are slim to none. I am reminded of that scene in the John Adams miniseries when President Adams is at his wife’s bedside in her last moments. “I can’t believe I am going first”, she says, resigned to the fact that she will leave her husband, who loved her dearly, behind.
I do not want to merely be somber and sad as I think on these things in this space in the coming year. No, I am realistic as I grow older, but I am also wishing with all my might that I might have the thirty four more years that my dear wife promises me (maybe she has God’s ear or some other inside track not known to me?) so that I can love her, my children and grandchildren and this life that I have been blessed with with all my heart and soul and mind and body.
Yes, that is the goal, my friends.
To live long, if that is possible.
To live and love well, as long as one is given to do so.