Lessons of a lifetime allow reflection

Posted on 07 August 2019 by admin

I observed my 85th birthday. Please note that I didn’t say “celebrate.” My life has been good so far, and I hope that will continue. But this milestone is under the shadow of a tombstone. I’m not being morbid. I’m not even afraid: This is just a truth that I’m neither happy nor reluctant to acknowledge.
I hoped that my husband would reach this age before his life ended; he was only a few weeks shy of 85 when he died. My father passed away at only 59. My mother soldiered on alone for two decades, joining him when she was 79. I have one cousin, male, on each side of my family, both a bit above me in their 80s. But on the female side: I’m it! There’s a lot of matriarchal responsibility lurking there.
I’m one of those people who has never felt as old I am, because for a long time, I was always the youngest: graduating from school early, marrying early, having my children early. But now, I’m asking Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” question about myself: “You are old, Father William,” the young man said, “and your hair has become very white. And yet you incessantly stand on your head. Do you think, at your age, it is right?”
I never stood on my head, not literally, even long before my hair began its turning, but the question applies anyway, because I’ve done a lot of head-standing-type things, which will continue on as my life continues to lengthen — and, of course, to shorten.
Of course, the worry for me is not the body, but the brain. What if I lose the wonderful memory that’s been my lifetime’s greatest gift? How then could I recall all those places, times, people, incidents, that have gifted me with a writer’s store of stories? My physical life hasn’t been as kind: I’m among the last people in the world who can say, “I had scarlet fever”; my bones are not what they used to be, and neither are my eyes or ears. But somehow, I’ve managed to manage. From people I see after not seeing them for a long time, and for people I’m just meeting for the first time, I’m peppered with the same questions: Do you still live alone? Do you still drive? Do you still… Yes, I do. All of them. The ability to continue doing these things as life continues its simultaneous lengthening and shortening is itself life’s own greatest gift.
I think most often these days about my wise father, taken away at such a young age by a disease that didn’t even have a name, let alone any treatments, back in the mid-century. He was a doctor who specialized in diagnostics; he diagnosed his own illness, and no one could save him. But he could, and did, contribute much to medical knowledge before it claimed him. I learned from him how to live, and these days I pass his wisdom on to everyone: “In life, as in medicine, none of us knows what we’re going to get. We get what we get, and the longer we live, the more we get. So this is what to do: Take whatever life hands you, and make the best you can of it, because that’s all there is.”
I also think about my wise grandmother, my Boubby the Philosopher, who taught me to be Jewish, and whose life ended with this brief message she wrote in advance: “Please, no eulogy. If they don’t know me by now, it’s too late!”
The past’s baggage, good and bad, walks with me into this personal new year. May it be good for all of us.

1 Comments For This Post

  1. rebecca sklaver Says:

    HARRIET, YOUR COLUMN FROM AUGUST 8 JUST TOUCHED ME.

    to tell you the truth of all the paper i just read your articles.
    Keep writing “bis” 120 blessed ones

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