Last month when I was visiting my father in Ft. Lauderdale, we had lunch with Jan and Saul and Marv and Linda and my dad’s girlfriend, Julie. I am in my 40s and they are all roughly my father’s age – which meant they were all born when either Calvin Coolidge or Herbert Hoover was President. Yup, Coolidge. And Hoover. This also meant that mostly we talked about golf and tennis and walkers and oxygen tanks. We also talked about flatulence, but never in the context of walkers and oxygen tanks. I considered myself fortunate.
I get to have lunch or dinner with my dad’s pals almost every time I visit him, and it has become one of my very favorite parts of my trips to Florida. I don’t play tennis or golf and I don’t use an oxygen tank – at least not yet – but seeing my dad with his friends reminds me of two things I tend to forget. First, getting old is hard. I don’t necessarily want to fixate on that on a daily basis, but sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded of this reality and that it’s a universal. Make no mistake, exercise, eating right, and Botox are important, but eventually old age will win out. Both my father and Saul have long rows of painful-looking bruises on their arms because of recent hospitalizations and the blood thinners they take. My father has two entire shelves in his bathroom devoted to the prescription pills he swallows daily to remain vertical and functioning: The bottom shelf is the morning regimen and the upper shelf is the evening.
Second, despite being in their 80s and coping with the relentless pains and indignities that accompany old age, they still have an awful lot of fun. They spend far more time recounting cataclysmically bad golf and tennis games than they do their latest near-death experiences, and every meal is a little raucous. (Of course, that may also be due to the fact that they are all a little deaf.) They aren’t wealthy, but they have saved enough money to see most movies that don’t demand 3-D glasses or star Johnny Knoxville – though, frankly, I think they might find parts of “Jackass” strangely reassuring – and they still dance. I love that. I love the idea that their community’s “Men’s Golf Association” holds formal dinner dances, as if Coolidge or Hoover actually were still in the White House.
Perhaps the most moving part of these meals, however, is hearing the ways they take care of each other – and strangers. Julie volunteers at the nearby elementary school and at the local library when she is not with my father. My father has witnessed a lot of attrition among his golf buddies in the years he has lived in South Florida. He has watched die, among others, Fred and Bernie and Sylvan and Carnig and Joan and Gloria. When I glance at the list of people my brother and I invited to his eightieth birthday party a mere two and a half years ago, it becomes clear that we will use a much smaller room on his eighty-fifth. My dad and his friends know they can only do so much to help each other. They can visit and bring food and books and movies. They can swap walkers. They can offer spare bedrooms when families visit for hospital vigils.
They can’t make it easy to breathe or open a jelly jar with arthritic fingers, but they do all that they can.
I don’t want to sentimentalize my father’s life or suggest that living with a bad ticker, Crohn’s disease, a fading memory, and the hearing of a mollusk is easy. It’s not. Those are just a few of my father’s ailments. But somehow when I see my dad with his friends, I am reassured that if I do make it that long, I, too, will find reasons to smile.
(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on June 13, 2010.)