This is the birthday that we thought might not happen. 60. A year ago at this time, I got winded going up half a flight of stairs. A couple months earlier, the bottom fell out of my breathing while taking a stress test. My life was winding itself down. Never mind that I had survived a heart attack over a decade before, nor that I made it through congestive heart failure two years earlier. That is not counting the close brushes with disaster in much younger days, from car accidents to brawls to looking down the barrel of a gun.
It turns out my cardiologist was going through a health crisis of his own that would force him to retire.
One of my responses was an old trick called “Bridging the Grim Reaper” or “Leaping over Hel.” I bought an electric locomotive: a pair of O gauge F7 A units in NYC markings. It was made by Williams before the company was bought out by Bachmann, and was still unused. This was the near side of the bridge. The far side was my goal to run that locomotive at Yule – the far side of the bridge. Staying alive would be the middle of the bridge. That train was nothing less than hedging my bet, so to speak.
Another cardiologist took over and figured out what the problem was. He had encountered it before and knew what was necessary. So it was that in November, I had open heart surgery to replace a valve. It was painful and difficult. I could not walk on my own for a few days afterward. I needed help taking a shower. Walking came back slowly a couple days before going home. Even then, recovery was agonizingly slow.
That train ran at Yule!
There were setbacks. I took ill in the second half of March. May and June saw problems with my legs and swelling that added 20 pounds in a week. These things were reversed and along with the added 20 pounds, another 20 were lost.
Getting my strength back has been gradual and slow. Nonetheless, there is progress.
Now I have turned 60. All this has made me examine things about health, life and age.
I can no longer do things I did in younger years. This is not due to age, but health. When feeling well, I tend to move briskly. The surgeon who operated on my heart noticed this when we first met. He said seeing how I walk and move about told him a lot about how to approach working on me. My case would be different from someone who moved slowly, as if he were sick. More and more, I can do things again.
Hopefully next year, I will be able to march the whole Memorial Day parade again. For now, I participate in various capacities. I am chaplain for my American Legion Post and our County committee. That requires attending Post meetings, county meetings and installation of officers ceremonies. I also participate in other things with my Post. We provide the squad that does the 21 Gun Salute at the Point Ceremony on Memorial Day. Though I could not march in the parade, I was able to be part of the firing squad again. Last week, I was part of the color guard for Freehold’s annual July 4th Reading of the Declaration of Independence. Granted, standing there at attention for an hour had a few tough moments, but they passed soon enough. In May, we were the firing squad for the dedication of a flagpole at Lake Topanemus park. As chaplain, I also wrote and read the invocation. And though I write a good non-denominational prayer when necessary, I usually start with “Father of All.” That’s part of being an interfaith minister whose own affiliation is rather Norse. I am the only Heathen chaplain around these parts, by the way.
Sunday we have an installation at Post 266. All I do is read one little invocation and I look cool. As with most of the posts in the county, I have good friends at 266 so it is a pleasure to be part of the ceremony. And that is one of the important things in Life: doing something meaningful for friends.
As to age, well, there we have a problem. Some people say “Act your age.” What they really mean is “Act like a stodgy boring old coot and fit in with the rest of the folks who have a June bug up their butts.”
No way! Age is a number and ought not be a constraint. I think of Great Uncle Billy (I had a couple of great uncles named Billy) who was 93 and fixed a gutter on his roof. His wife, my great aunt Mary, had been a schoolteacher in the days of one-room classrooms. That was multitasking! In her late 80s, she was fascinated with the space program and her favorite baseball team, the Mets. And by that time, she was blind, but it did not stop her from getting information. She felt that people who stop learning have stopped living.
My other Great Uncle Billy had a wooden leg and used a cane. I was at his 50th wedding anniversary back in 1962 or 1963. Uncle Billy was a big, loud, white-haired man who looked like Lee Marvin, but redder. I remember him often yelling at another great uncle, Uncle Nick, “Goddammit, Nick, stop your bullsh–tting and get in the car!” Uncle Nick was another old geezer with a cane who managed to get all over the place. He was active in a few organizations and was always selling raffle tickets for one or the other. Uncle Nick had a huge, boat-sized Cadillac by which means he made his rounds throughout Orange and Sullivan counties. They were in their 80s and still carrying on. I remember the time Uncle Nick and I went to the topless joint out on Route 209. That was a hoot!
Look at some of the examples I had, insofar as “aging gracefully”. Graceful my ass! There was nothing graceful about it. They did what they liked to do regardless of age or physical problems.
I still have a great time running O gauge trains and opening a new bag of army men. Audrey says that at age 60 I am still playing with the same toys I liked at age 6.
Age is a number, and injuries just slow you down a little. Health can inhibit sometimes, but ought never be allowed to dominate your life. You still count and can still do the things you like. Maybe not all the things, but most of them. You may have to make a few adjustments to do them, but you do not have to abandon them.
We are here to express Life. Each of us does this in his and her own way. Each of us is part of this greater thing. Supreme Being is an action and we are all part of it We are part of that flow of Life and our thing is to express it, each in his or her own way. And never forget that feeling of wonder that came with opening a new bag of army men, or going to run electric trains, or for the ladies, taking that new doll out of the box for the first time. By all meant, DON’T ACT YOUR AGE. Act your Life! Age is a number based on the earth’s revolution around the Sun. You can measure it by counting. You cannot measure Life by numbers or calculations, nor by length or width or depth or weight. Express yourself, express your Life!