Cumberland Times-News

Columns

January 19, 2013

What once was a long way off is now here

We occasionally hear from people who are infuriated about something they read in our newspaper. (OK, more than occasionally.)

That once included my father. He called me to complain about a news story, even though he knew I hadn’t written it.

This story had described a 75-year-old man as “elderly.”

“I’m 75,” he said, “and I’m not elderly!” Actually, he worded it a bit more colorfully than that. His characterization of the reporter who wrote the story was equally colorful.

Dad was right. He wasn’t elderly and, until the last few days of his almost 90 years, could never have been thought of as being that way.

Even then, he wasn’t really elderly, considering the fight he put up against the physical ailments that eventually killed him.

My mother was the same way. She was confined to a wheelchair, a recliner and her hospital bed at home for  3 1/2 years by a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side. Despite that, she was in all respects still my mom.

Her unresponsive left hand was clenched into a fist, and Dad and I sat quietly and watched as she stared ferociously at it. We knew what was going on and agreed that if anybody could will the life back into such a hand, she would be the one to do it.

Mom told me wonderful stories and talked about life, and I marveled at how wise she was.

When I asked her a question about grammar, she answered it as patiently and precisely as she would have when she was an English teacher more than 30 years earlier.

The tone, clarity and strength of her voice even reverted to that of a far younger woman. It was remarkable to hear, and I wondered why medical science couldn’t find out what causes such a thing to happen and make it permanent.

“Don’t ever color your hair,” she told me.

I said I had no intention of it, but why not?

“When your hair turns gray,” she said, “your skin changes, too. People can look at your dyed hair and your skin and tell they don’t match.”

Mom gladly allowed her magnificent red hair to turn gray. In her mind, this allowed her to wear the red, peach and rust-colored clothing she loved, but a proper old-fashioned redhead should avoid, lest she appear too flashy.

More than anything, elderly is a state of mind. The older I get, the older old gets. I recognize old when I see it, but can’t define it.

 I remember sitting at my desk shortly after starting at the newspaper in July 1969, thinking “Jan. 20, 2013. I will be able to retire on that day. But that’s a long way off.”

Jan. 20, 2013, is today. Today is my 65th birthday, and I probably could retire, but have no desire to do so for a variety of reasons.

I continue to love most of what I do for a living. It has been so rewarding in some respects that I honestly can’t think of anything else I would rather have done. My parents were teachers, and both told me they felt the same way about their careers.

Few jobs are perfect, although Ben Davidson, the former Oakland Raider football player, once said if there was such a thing, he had it.

Davidson was featured in the Miller Lite beer commercials and told Johnny Carson, “I get paid to drink beer and see America.”

Being a newspaperman gets in your blood. Several folks at the Times-News are older than I am, and none of them shows any inclination to retire.

Officially making the transition from middle-aged citizen to senior citizen means another exemption to claim on my income taxes, and a reduction in my West Virginia real property taxes, but that’s about all.

I probably became a senior citizen 10 years ago as a relative youngster of 55 when Dad was a patient in Sacred Heart Hospital.

Each day after work, I visited him and ate in the hospital cafeteria while he had dinner. The food was good (probably better than what they gave Dad; his wasn’t salted and had no taste), it was affordable, and there was frozen yogurt that tasted like regular soft-serve ice cream.

I told the cashier that I was amazed at how cheap the food it was.

“Well,” she said, “it isn’t very expensive to begin with ... and there is a senior citizen discount.”

Dad, who was a few months past 89, thought that was hilarious. So did I. (The time my mother told me I looked distinguished in the suit I was wearing, I protested, “Mother! That’s what you say to someone who’s middle-aged!” She hoisted her eyebrows and replied, “Well?”)

It became just one more thing Dad and I had in common. He and my mom were thrilled the first time they went to McDonald’s and got a senior citizens’ discount at age 55.

The first day Dad was in the hospital, a friend called me at work to read me what I quickly recognized as The Riot Act. She had volunteered in hospitals and nursing homes and was studying to be a registered nurse.

“You get right up there and make friends with the nurses and nurse’s aides, the therapists and anybody else you can find,” she said.

“Talk to them about what they do and ask them about their families, bring them a box of candy. Some flowers wouldn’t hurt, and ... ”

By this time, I was almost in hysterics.

“This is your father I’m talking about!” she raged, only a bit more colorfully than that. (In fact, she used the same colorful expression my father did in complaining  about a 75-year-old man being described as “elderly.”)

I explained to her that, “You don’t know my father as well as I do. I know exactly what you’re talking about, and not only has he been doing it for a lot longer than I have, he’s a hell of a lot better at it than I will ever be.”

And so, when I went to visit my 89-year-old father that day, he was sitting up in his hospital bed with a smile on his face.

There were two nurses present, one on either side of his bed, and each was holding one of his hands with both of hers.

“These are two of my favorites,” he said.

Elderly? After I caught enough of my breath to tell them why I was laughing so hard, all three of them thought it was as funny as I did.

My father lived to be almost 90 and, as you might tell, never became elderly. Neither did my mother, who lived to be 84.

This was one of the many examples they set for me. They also taught me the value of faith, love, respect, doing what you believe is right and never giving up.

It took me a while to start doing so, but now I try to follow those examples as best I can.

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