In some ways, our youth and middle years are really a sort of training period for the unanticipated pleasure of being an older adult. Over time, you understand more how life works, how you fit in, and how to navigate it. Fortunately for many, old age is often a time defined not so much by sorrow, dread, and regret, but rather by peace, gratitude, and fulfillment. “I’m gonna die? What else is new? Meanwhile, I’ve got my grandkids here. ‘How was your recital? Let’s go somewhere for lunch with a decent martini.’”
We all know death is going to happen, and ignoring that fact is futile. Death is not so much a horrible thing to the elderly as those with less years on their plate. Which, in this case, was the fate for my 96 and ½ year old father who passed away this week.
He would be the first to tell you that, given his age, it is sad, but not a tragedy. He accepted death as an inevitable part of life and was ready, having outlived my mother for over a decade, a nephew, all siblings and other relatives, all his friends, co-workers from long ago, and neighbors. Those who knew him, including his 82-year old nephew, commented how lucky we were that his health was good, his wits were keen, and he kept abreast of current developments. My Dad always asked what the people in my life were up to. He was one of the few people around who could truly make me laugh up until recently after a tumble felled him in May.
How does someone live to be 96+? A vegan, all grain and vegetable diet? Heck no – burgers were his favorite. No refined sugar? No way. Walking up in the middle of the night and making himself a milkshake was commonplace. I don’t care about my cholesterol reading. Sees Candy was a favorite. Daily meditation? A foreign term – the closest thing were frequent naps. A strict exercise regime? Are you kidding? The only gyms he’d ever set foot in were those to watch me as a kid, or his grandkids, play basketball. Healthy lifestyle? Nope. He smoked a pipe for fifty years, drank Jim Beam nearly every day, and probably tipped the scales at 250 at one point. Gotta be genetics, “playing with the hand we’re dealt.” (My Dad was always mildly annoyed at obituaries that didn’t list the cause of death. “I want to know!” In honor of that, he died because his heart stopped beating. Plain and simple. He went to sleep and didn’t wake up. We should all be so lucky.)
In 1942 he enlisted in the Navy, if only for the reasons that he could have three square meals a day, sleep in a bed every night, and escape selling newspapers on street corners in San Francisco during the Depression. He was 6-2, 135 pounds. It was a real economic downturn, where people were starving. Not like what we had after 2008 where some had to drink tap instead of sparkling. My Dad was one of about 16 million Americans who served in World War II, and he also served in Korea. Off to boot camp in San Diego he went on the train.
Every day we lose 500 or more veterans who served in World War II. Hundreds of thousands of sailors went to sea and fought in World War II, perhaps the most singular unifying event in the history of the United States. These young Americans set aside their individual hopes and aspirations, left families, homes, and jobs in a collective sacrifice to defend their country and its common ideals. He was one of those sailors, and was incredibly proud of his BMC (Chief Boatswain’s Mate) title, being a Chief Petty Officer. The experiences he lived and memories he saved from the war faded as life went on and the years accumulated. It exists primarily as literary and photographic history now, to all but a few. And even those few are hard pressed to remember.
My dad’s military service was remarkable, mainly because it was so commonplace. Nearly all of those who served during that time were anonymous in the broad view of history. My Dad was never famous or noteworthy. No school or road was named for him, no book mentions him. He and others played their parts in a terrible but necessary international struggle that had a beginning and an end, and would be satisfied with victory.
Yet my father Bob lived a life that had a rich and wonderful historical context. My memories, simply put, aren’t in the same ballpark as his. A badly sprained ankle doesn’t stack up to earning a Purple Heart while on submarine watch in the North Atlantic during WWII. Nothing I’ve seen or done compares to seeing Japanese survivors of the atom bomb lined up on the pier in 1945, seeing the mushroom cloud rising above the sea at Bikini Atoll, or selling extra sheets from the ship to Arabs in North Africa in early 1943. Despite some mischief, he earned six Good Conduct Medal while in the Navy. And who wouldn’t want to have been stationed at “Pearl” during much of the 1950’s as Hawai’i marched toward statehood?
He lived through 17 presidential administrations, saw two grandchildren establish successful adult lives, and provided comic relief to the workers at the assisted care facility where he spent the last years of his life. Through hard work, savings, being conservative, I will admit taking some of my advice, and some luck in real estate, he never had to worry about finances. He was a counselor at a boy’s detention camp near Santa Barbara for a spell, and then became a cannery foreman in San Jose until retirement. My dad lived another 57 years after being honorably discharged from his twenty years in the USN in 1962.
Our relationship changed after my Mom passed away in 2008. We would talk every day, and have lunch often. His favorite tales had nothing to do with battles, bombs, and bullets. Rather, like my father, they were funny, usually involving learning to drive during the Depression, the cost of a beer on a remote Pacific atoll, visiting the saloons surrounding Pearl Harbor, teaching his niece how to shave her legs, or what my Mom’s family thought of their Stanford grad marrying a sailor. (I, for one, am sure glad that happened!) Just last year we drove by a grove of trees in Golden Gate Park and he told me that’s where he’d gotten sick as a kid after having his first cigar.
The days where he’d wrestle with us kids on the grass, or throw the longest bomb during football games, disappeared long ago. For me being an only child has its pros and cons, but one advantage is spending a lot of time talking to one’s parents. Looking back it was a blessing. He settled into middle age, and then old age, gracefully, and always asking me about how my friends and the grandkids were doing. Several years ago he voluntarily handed me the car keys to his Buick, saying he was done, and I became his chauffeur. (He quipped, “Look, I’m worth a few bucks, and I don’t want some damned lawyer taking it all away because I step on the gas instead of the brake.”) A broken hip, and the resulting operation, four months ago really set him back, as did the loss of appetite and resulting dramatic weight decline. They seem to be nature’s way of telling the elderly that the end is near.
So get to work enjoying life, because you only have so much time. If you’ve convinced yourself that a wonderful life is working 70 hours a week, so be it. But I will respectfully disagree. If childhood is a theme park, old age is when we’ve been on all the rides a thousand times and are perfectly content just to watch. Death is nonnegotiable, something that can only be delayed, never avoided. It’s a mercy, then, that when many reach the end, so many arrive there smarter, calmer, and even smiling. By the end my Dad was ready for the next step.
Losing him was painful. Bringing him a donut the other morning and finding him not breathing was a shock. But he would be the first to tell you that life goes on, he had a good run, and he was pleased to determine that his remains will join my mother’s for eternity. We owe a debt of gratitude to those serving the United States who bear witness and return to let us know what it is we fight for. And for me that will always be my Dad.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. As I said, it is sad, but not a tragedy. Losing someone who can make you laugh, however, is indeed tragic. I was very fortunate to have had him this long.
I would be remiss if I didn’t pass along some bits of advice on a wide range of topics that he gave me during my life. On buffet lines: “Never take the top plate.” Financial management? Apparently, he found $10 in a hotel bible in Alabama while on leave in the 1950s, and from then on would recommend, “Always look in hotel bibles for money.” He’d opine on fluid mechanics: “I always get my martini olives on the side. Think about displacement!” He could talk to animals. “Hey, the squirrels are looking for you. They think you’re a nut.”
After work he’d read the newspaper, glancing at the headlines, and exclaim, “500 Soles Perish in Shoe Fire Factory!” or “1,500 Found Dead in Graveyard!” with a slight smile. The worst place he’d ever been? Korea in the early 1950s. (“It would freeze the nuts off a freight train!”) The best place he’d ever been? Anywhere my mother was during their nearly 50-year marriage.
I will miss him so.
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