I stopped counting at 300 columns. I have been writing since 1980. Rarely, only a couple of dozens of times over all these years, has a stranger stopped me in town and commented on the writing. When I ask which one they remember it is often the column I wrote about my father entitled “The Gift of Special People.”
My father was an autistic savant who committed to memory 250,000 eleven-digit record catalog numbers after seeing the number only once. His record store, Merit Music Shop, was a Manhattan landmark. His weird memorization skills brought him attention well before savantism was a known phenomenon. When he closed the store, the event was covered in the New York newspapers and local television stations. Even after he retired, he displayed his unusual talent for anyone who asked until at about my age (76) when his brain lost some cognitive abilities.
For a “normal person” with a conventional brain, what he decided to do might sound maudlin. For my father, his decision at 80 to lie down and stop eating fit perfectly with his no-nonsense, fearless understanding of the inevitability of death. When I am asked: ‘What did your father die of?” I answer, “Acceptance.”
At the end, he was ensconced in a glass, beige, white and mirrored Palm Beach condominium with my mother standing at the foot of his bed beseeching him to rise and return to the life of the living.
Outside the floor-to-ceiling-windowed living room, old people frolicked on the pool deck. Mother solicited the help of a retired doctor to convince my father to reverse directions. The aged doctor, in a yellow, red and blue Hawaiian shirt, spouted platitudes at my father: “You’re only as old as you feel. Age is just number. If you don’t use it, you will lose it.” After he departed, my Dad looked at me and said, “Damn fool.”
I admired my father’s attitude. He was a maverick. It was still the Age of Aquarius when certain books were essential reading, like The Arrogance of Power by Willam Fulbright, Soul on Ice by Eldridge Clever, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a guide through the consciousness one still has after death and its opposite by The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker.
I never read the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I preferred not glossing over the reality; after all, my father’s daughter.
But am I? Would I have the courage he had now that I am in the second half of my seventh decade? It’s conceivable that I read Becker’s essays while still a hippie chick sunbathing at Split Rock, pretending to be unselfconscious, lying around toasting myself au-naturel.
Now I know something about getting old.
I inwardly smile when a young couple on Married at First Sight, the popular reality TV show, say to each other, moonstruck, “I want to grow old with you.” Do they think it’s an old lady in a rocker knitting, her husband reading the paper with a magnifying glance, calling each other “mother and father.”
Actually, it’s often hilarious.
There are constant losses, a devolving of faculties. Sentences beginning with, “Now I no longer can … fill in the blank with: hear, see, dance, ski, ride a bike, drive to Florida, eat corn, cut your own toenails, walk up stairs without pain.”
If the aging process is kind, at least you can retain a sense of humor.
Just the other day I was reading to the ole guy the first two paragraphs of this column. When I asked, “So what do ya think?” he replied, chewing, which I can no longer hear from a short distance, “It’s “delicious.”
Ten minutes ago, after a long walk, he called to me while I was writing, “Let’s plan the day.” I replied , “Can you come in? My feet hurt.” Then, alarmed, he shouted, “When did you get a fever?”
Sometimes, I have to remind him to go and get a pedicure. After he was gone all day, when he arrived home, I asked him if he went to the toe salon. “What’s a toe salon?” He asked. Annoyed, I said again, “Did you go to the toe salon?” To which he replied, “What the hell is a toe salon?” We went back and forth until he said, “Do you mean the nail salon?”
That exchange struck us very funny with laughter continuing every time we thought about it during the rest of the day. I am grateful to grow old with him and aware that could change someday for either of us and become a life-altering loss.
My father died two months after my visit to Palm Beach. When his nurse called me to say the end was near, I asked her to ask him if he wanted to see me one more time. Practical and realistic to the end, with his strange no-drama processing brain, he told the hospice nurse, “Tell her, I said goodbye already.” So him, I honored and loved that response.
The last moment I spent with him was after the doctor left when he said, “dammed fool” and we both laughed.