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And in the End.....Getting Older for a Long Time

Some things in life you plan for: getting an education, maybe a marriage, children, jobs, vacations. Others happen by surprise: loss, divorce, illness. Yet, we are told that both financially and psychologically, we can prepare for old age, for retirement. We can invest, get resources, pick out housing, maybe downsize, learn hobbies, go for the sun. But what if you live to be one-hundred? If you retire at sixty-five, that's thirty-five years....or more. Will the money last? Can you golf for forty years?

As I spent the weekend at the festivities for my father's 100th birthday, I watched my dad. My vibrant youthful dad. He smiled, greeted people, stood for pictures. He wept reading the book of his poems my sister published, studied the historical timeline my other sister and niece created, read his cards over and over. At church, he got a plaque from the Pope; the Obamas sent a birthday card. Countless others wanted in on the sentiment. What a wonderful thing to live to one hundred.

My father, on the other hand, asked the same question over and over. What is my life that all these people should celebrate it? He didn't find a cure for anything or invent a revolutionary process or fly to the moon. He had an exciting early life in Brazil, returned to Lebanon, married his first cousin, my mother, emigrated to the U.S., ran several stores and retired in Silver Spring near some of his grandchildren. It doesn't seem like a remarkable life and yet in many ways, all our lives are.

Is it enough to spend 100 years alive? Surviving? To witness a century of major historical events? To see the world go from walking to rockets, from letters to skype?

One of our favorite positions  is my father in his Lazy Boy, my niece sitting beside him, holding his hand and feeding him prompts to start him off on a story. He is a storyteller who brings his characters and the enviroment to life, he includes details that paint the terrain, the time, the culture. The voices erupt from him as if he is acting in  a play. But what of these stories? Never published (except in a memoir) what do they tell of our lives? Perhaps when he evokes the moment of finding the dead body in the village, we are really in the middle of the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, or when he is conscripted into the Bolivian army in 1928, we are witnessing the shift of power in South America, or that moment when a neighbor confronts him about his "colored" worker, we relive the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties.Every story is the story of history and millions of lives are the letter press of its reportage.

A poet too--he could not resist the empty page, whether that page was a back of an envelope or a placemat...poems about the sky, about Lebanon, about love swirled on sheets of everything--hundreds of pages, hundreds of yearnings and disappointments . But all that is over now.

One of the problems with living beyond one hundred is the machine cannot keep up. No one informed his vision that he would need to see typewriter keys, or his ears that he would want to listen to a play far beyond the time others would. He leans in, strains sometimes, appreciates what he can but falls back into a muted world. Better yet, he gets someone into a game of sheesh beesh or rummicube and knocks them off the backgammon board or takes all the tiles up.

The last 30 years have been a crazy kind of wondering and waiting for him--what to do now? who to visit? who will visit me? When mother died in 2002, we worried that he wouldn't know what to do and yet he took up the cooking and cleaning as if he had been doing it his whole life. At 92, he was transformed and soft. My father lives alone: cleans his own house, gets his own meals, makes yogurt the old fashioned way everyday. My oldest brother sits with him at the dining room table when he visits and they play games. He skypes us, we call him; he waits for my brother, Jean,  to come to lunch every sunday, which he does. Then he piles the laundry in the machine and watches the Catholic television network.

At his party, he sat in the church hall listening to the toasts, shaking hands, watching babies, feeling the universe rotate around him. He was the sun and he shined even as he was overwhelmed. In pictures he is muted, holding onto the day, feeling its preciousness.

I wonder, as anyone would, what I would do at 100...how would I prepare? Can I trust my senses to stay keen or even to function? what if they didn't? Would I watch the tv at atomic loudness? Would I pray because I can't write?

My father's party was great, he was so appreciative and touched. We were loving and loved. Now, today, he is over 100. The questions are still there--what now? What do you do as you get older for a long time? Actually I hope I'm as lucky as my dad, with a spring in my step and the energy to hold his granddaughter's hand and reminisce.  It has a loveliness and a loneliness at once. So unexpected, just like life.

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about the weekend


yes, you captured it all. he is full of sadness and joy simultaneously.