Here they are, the greatest generation, looking pretty ordinary: armed now with carts and canes, bragging about their grandchildren, complaining about their doctors and relishing their deserts.
Every other Monday night I visit my father at the Annapolis retirement community where he lives, and I have come to know the dinner menu as well as a bit about his friends from the World War II generation. At 90 my father doesn’t say so much, but he and his dinner companions like the company of younger people (at 53, I count as younger).
It’s a nice, upscale community. Restaurant-quality food, paneled walls, a water view. The residents joke about it as “God’s waiting room,” but I don’t see it that way – there is a lot to hear and observe about their robust lives if you are interested. There’s a former Navy quarterback who has dinner with us from time to time, an All-American in his day. After the Naval Academy he flew combat planes in Europe and Japan, and later cargo jets all over the world. Finally, in retirement, he and his wife traveled to the same places as tourists. Another Navy man talks about his decades of work in the aerospace industry, followed by retirement in tidal Virginia. He talks about his wife, too; she passed away a few years ago, and he speaks of it as if it were yesterday, with a tear in his eye, still.
They are eager to hear about my business and my kids. They are better listeners than my friends – perhaps because they have the time, perhaps it is just a practice that time has allowed them to acquire. They hang on the words about my son’s travels and my daughters’ acting, listening in a way that adults of my generation don’t seem to have the skill to manage. Stories I would not tell my friends for fear of appearing a braggart (or just boring), my dad’s friends appreciate, or at least are gracious enough to allow me to believe they do.
There are dinner tables filled exclusively with women, beautifully dressed, their hair done in perfect, light confections. Where are their men? War, cancer, industrial accidents, stress – all took a terrible toll on the men who came of age in the 1940s. The women carry on here, with the laughter that their age and perspective afford them, worrying about their children’s marriages, playing cards and traveling as much as their unreliable hips allow. One or two will eye my dad from time to time; I suppose he is viewed as eligible. He’ll give a pleasant wave, but he is fading. He can’t talk about the book he read that afternoon. Once a master carver of wildfowl art, he no longer recognizes his own artwork. He even has trouble negotiating his Yankee Pot Roast. His long summer of retirement now is in its last season.
I have a friend who is dying of ALS, and I go to see him after work or at lunch sometimes. Each time I visit, he’s a little worse: his body limp as a rag-doll, his breathing a measure of the ravages of his insidious disease. A few months ago he inhaled with difficulty, later with occasional assistance of a bi-pap machine, now with a mask and a scary, ragged cough.
He’s my age, yet like my dad and his friends, time works against him. I enjoy my hours with him, and I have come to know his kids a bit better, and his wife, too. Nerve deterioration in his throat extinguished his words months ago, but a remarkable strength of spirit allows him to communicate with more depth than most conversations I hear. An iPad and gestures allow him to stay in the conversation; he can trace out words with his finger and display them. With a thump of his rickety chest and pointed, slender finger he shows more love and affection than the hundred air kisses I’ll get this holiday season. Other times, he’ll wrap his hands around his torso to let me know that he approves, that he loves, that he lives. Looking carefully, I still see smile lines of his face behind the mask that forces air into his lungs.
The living room where he treats his symptoms could be a sad place, and it is a hospital of sorts with its medical equipment and occasional medical type helping out. But his kids are there, his wife, all weathering his illness with great attitudes, laughter and immense strength. Being with them has filled some of the void left by the absence of my own kids, now in college; I now have a bit of purpose that evaded me just a few months ago.
God’s waiting room? Not really. These are places full of life, love, family, laughter and grave sadness, too – the decades reduced to months and days, all life’s passions and grand events reduced and distilled in time’s crucible.
Stephen B. Awalt is an attorney in Towson, Md. He wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.
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