RAMBLINGS • At Least Now I Know Why

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There are advantages, I suppose, to becoming elderly, though they aren’t the ones I anticipated as a younger whippersnapper. Most are half blessing but also half curse, at least in my experience.

One such benefit is making The Journal-News’ “Young at Heart” section. The article was well-written and flattering (thanks, Seth), but young at heart as a designation translates into old everywhere else in one's body for those who see both sides of the coin. The pictures emphasized that; I can’t believe I looked as young as the 1968 yearbook picture portrayed me to be, and the picture taken in 2019? I must have had a bad day.

I have other examples. The trash truck comes by my house early every Wednesday, so I roll the dumpster to the bottom of my driveway late Tuesday evening, just about dusk. It isn’t a Herculean task; the dumpster is on wheels, and it’s only 50 feet from where I keep it. I try to push it back up the slight grade to its place shortly after the trash man comes; because a slight edge exists between the brick on the boulevard and the concrete sidewalk, shoving/lifting the hard rubber wheels to the walk can be challenging. Every once in a while a kindly observer will ask if I need help, but I always decline.

That push is at times, especially in the winter, the only exercise I have. I also know if I stop doing a chore for myself, even once, I may start depending on others to do it for me. I always appreciate the offers for help, but I’m so afraid of dependency that I will refuse for as long as I can.

I’m not consistent with all refusals, however. During the cold snap in mid-February, I wanted to go uptown to Sullivan’s to fill a prescription and to The Journal-News office so Mike Plunkett could connect me via Zoom to a meeting I was scheduled to cover, so I decided to shovel my way out of the same driveway. I had a tire width cleared to the sidewalk when grandson Kyle came sprinting over (he lives next door) with an offer to finish the job. In ten minutes he’d finished what I had begun, and I was grateful. I may be stubborn, but I’m not yet stupid.

The older I become, the more trouble I have determining cause and effect. Some effects I’ve noticed this winter may have to do with age, but perhaps they are the fault of the loneliness that goes with the enforced confinement the pandemic brought about and the cold weather enhanced.

In the culture in which I was raised, men didn’t cry. If a cow kicked my father (anyone who has tried to hand milk a first calf Holstein heifer has been kicked, and the bruises hurt), he’d swear and punch her in the ribs; it would become a battle of wills which he would ultimately win. I never saw my father cry, but my sister said he cried the day I left for junior college some 300 miles away. When she told me that, I was young enough and obnoxious enough to think he cried because he was losing his herdsman, but now I’ve had enough love and grief in my life to know better.

I would cry in private, but not very often. Once after dad died and I had the farm to run until mom sold it, I sat in the milk house and sobbed because I was so tired and confused about the many expectations I thought others had for me. I thought I had empathy for others, but I’m afraid I didn’t even know the meaning of the word until lately.

Now, though, I tear up often in private, watching Dr. Pol or one of his associates euthanize a pet even though someone cared for it (because it was the best option for the animal). Some times call for a quiet tear. If I’m talking on the phone, or even occasionally talking in person about what Judy meant to one of her students at Coffeen, I swallow rapidly several times. I don’t watch sad movies for fear I’ll fall victim to the “Sad movies make me cry” syndrome. Thinking of the social injustice in our culture caused by poverty or race can anger me to tears.

I also think often of my father-in-law who gave up his Marine vet facade to sob when two of his children died before he did. (He may have cried privately when Judy agreed to marry me; if so, I didn’t know). Now I live in fear of outliving either of my grown children or my grandchildren.

I have pictures of Kaylyn, Kyle, Kamryn, and little Emma hung below the mantle of my fireplace where I can see them as I write; as grateful as I am for their presence, I grow sad when I consider how much love Judy would have showered on them if she were still here.

I am sorry for thoughts I’ve harbored about elderly in my past. My maternal grandmother lived to be 107; most of her last 40 years she lived with my mom. Sometimes she claimed she “...wanted to go.” Her husband died in his early 40s; all of her siblings and friends were long gone; she had never had many material possessions; her eyesight and hearing were weak; and her world had changed drastically–from horse transportation through cars and airplanes; from knowing Civil War vets; through the fears of World Wars I and II, the Korean Conflict, and Vietnam; from slow mail personal communications through telegrams to party-line phones to private lines; from attending a small country church to worshipping by television with Oral Roberts and Billy Graham; and perhaps most importantly, she’d gone from being the center of her family’s existence to being what she perceived to be a burden to her daughter. Still, I couldn’t understand her sadness in her last several years. Now I do.

Perhaps that’s the biggest positive I’ve taken from my Young at Heart appearance. I have battled the feeling that I have nothing left to offer to anyone for some time, and that article lessened that feeling.

As I look back, I realize I did more good than harm in the classrooms of HHS and on the coaching sidelines. I remember what one school board member said to me after the meeting at which I was appointed soccer coach, in effect being charged with establishing a program for both the gentlemen and the ladies, even though I’d written a letter to the editor opposing the idea as it was first presented. I knew the number of athletes at the school was growing smaller as the number of students lessened; it, I thought, made more sense to have one strong fall program than two weak ones. I hadn’t been around soccer for a long time (since the fall of 1967), but I then realized there were young men with the quickness to compete on the soccer pitch but with the lack of physical size to play football well. I knew too that some football fans were paranoid about what soccer could do to football numbers, and I thought I could handle that fallout better than a new, non-tenured faculty member or a parent. At any rate, after the meeting that night she told me students were better off for experiences with me and that the more contact I had with students, the better off the district was.

I carry her words with me yet today, though I wish she’d been on the board a few years later when another group decided my presence as a freshman basketball coach was detrimental to the program.

In a way, I tried to deny I lost my anchor when Judy died in 1991, so I didn’t grieve adequately then. Instead I threw myself into a flurry of activities, many of which Seth outlined in his article. We were married 25 years; I’ve been a widower for 30.

Still, I hadn’t cried outwardly until the “Stay at Home” orders brought a cessation to most of my busyness. At home, usually alone, I had to face the world as it is. I’ve dropped memberships in social clubs and religious affiliations (I still believe in a Supreme Being and the Christian ethic, but not a formalized creed). I am more at peace with myself than I’ve been for 30 years.

Tears? I’ve made up for lost time, but at least now I know why I’m crying, and it’s okay.

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