In March of this year I celebrated my 80th birthday in the warm and welcome company of my wife, my son, brothers and one remaining sister. I had invited them all fearing that perhaps several would be unable to attend. But I was pleasantly surprised to see them all there, with spouses and a couple of my nephews, save my brother Robert who lives in Germany. We shared a dinner at a restaurant very special to Bobbie and me – Gertrude’s, located in a heavenly location in Phoenix, the Desert Botanical Garden. And the next morning, all were able to join Bobbie and me and son Conrad and his fiancee Tara at the Scottsdale house for breakfast.
Now that I’m 80 years old and breathing the rarified octogenarian air enjoyed by but approximately five percent of the US male population, I must pause a moment, reflect and take note.
Looking back on these 80 years, there is much to regret – I should have made a different decision here; I should have worked harder on that; I should have been a better politician there. But that’s all over and whatever happened I cannot change any more than I can change the character or personality traits that influenced these decisions. And one more regret, the manifestations of which I still wrestle with today – I wish I had stopped to smell the roses more often, taken the time to relax, enjoy myself, sleep late, linger over my morning coffee, sit and read poetry or a novel. But it seems that I’ve been locked into a duty and task-driven existence that has controlled me with its weight and momentum.
But on the other hand there is much to feel good about. I’ve had a reasonably successful career and, while certainly not wealthy, own a few assets and have earned and enjoy a decent retirement. I’ve worked in education all my professional life, a field that I have loved and a fact that I’m quite proud of. All of my experiences dealing with children, parents and teachers for every one of those 45 years in education have brought me much joy and fulfillment.
I am thankful to say that physically I feel pretty good for a guy in that five percent. All the organs seem to be still working okay. Recent tests have revealed persistent elevated levels of cholesterol which I am trying to bring down. Other numbers have revealed some potential kidney problems, not uncommon as we age. And I continue to deal with the BPH problem with which I have wrestled for a decade or so. Additionally, recent tests related to my heart function have been satisfactory.
The large joints, despite (or maybe because of?) years of running in my 30’s, 40’s and 50’s are working adequately. Yes, I am stiff from time to time and I still encounter pain in my left knee, on which I have had several surgeries over the years and now my right, which to now has never bothered me. The arthritis which assaulted me several years ago while in Vermont and to which I attributed to Lyme Disease is noticeable in several finger and toe joints and has likely affected the knees. Lyme tests (2) were negative but I am well aware of the capricious and inconsistent nature of Lyme test results and of Lyme disease itself, so I still have some lingering suspicion. At any rate, shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees (for the most part) and ankles seem to be functioning despite occasional pain.
Thankfully I have exercised for most of my life. During my 30’s I got into running through my association with a good friend and managed to continue, mixing it with hiking, gym visits and other exercise to a greater or lesser degree through my 40’s and 50’s and into my 60’s. That bad left knee forced running from my life in my 70’s but I have managed through gym membership while in Arizona and some dumbbells and an elliptical machine in the basement TV room here in Vermont to keep the exercise up. Yes, on some days it’s absolutely the last thing I want to do but somehow I have forced myself to keep going and it’s been good for me. I do think that it’s an important reason for my relatively good health at this age now. As I enter the upper reaches of old age I have tried to heed the maxim promoted by a friend from my Scottsdale gym who, even while hobbling in three times a week on a cane, says, ”Ralph, at our age we just gotta keep moving”.
Weight is another thing entirely. Despite the exercise, I have always struggled with weight and have given in to a steady gain over the decades. Around 160 in my 20’s has grown to 170 in my 30’s, and given way to 180 plus in my 40’s to now, Presently I am striving to get down to 185 and it’s been tough going.
And one more thing about health at eighty. It could be my imagination but I really do discern a change in how doctors and other medical personnel deal with me. There appears to be a change in attitude – a reticence, resignation, nonchalance, disinterestedness, almost lackadaisicalness, when emerging or worsening health concerns appear. It’s rather like they are all thinking, “He’s 80 years old, what does he expect?” or “Improving this or that condition is unrealistic; things can only get worse – look at his age” “or “There’s little we can do about that – you’re 80 years old and your recuperative powers are limited”. Yes, it could be me thinking these thoughts and unfairly attributing them to the medical people but the feeling is unmistakably there, regardless of whom it is coming from.
A more positive aspect to dealing with medical problems at 80 is that my age gives me license to be more discerning and selective regarding the drugs that are prescribed for me. If the potential side effects of a particular drug, whether prescribed or over-the-counter, concern me, I can accept or reject the drug. I’ve made 80 already – that’s pretty good – I can accept the risk of taking or not taking that drug, or rejecting the drug entirely in favor of a more natural remedy that I think may work just as well. I mean, what can happen ? – I’ve already made 80.
And one more observation about turning 80. Decades ago, when certain frailties and concerning physical conditions first reared their heads, I worried about them perhaps developing into truly life altering or life threatening conditions as time went on. Well, it so happens that time did go on and the conditions did not get appreciably worse, nor did they seriously affect my quality of life, and (obviously) did not kill me. Here I’m talking about chronic conditions like Reynaud’s Disease, encounters with skin cancer (I’ve had two melanomas removed from my back), digestive problems, joint problems, heart concerns, clinical depression and others. Thank goodness, they’re all no worse or no greater concerns now at 80 than they were decades ago when first encountered. So basically, I’ve outlived the effects of those potentially life altering maladies.
And, when one turns 80 thoughts naturally turn to a radically diminished future and how many years of life remain. So of course, quite naturally, there are thoughts about death. A dear friend, also my age, mentioned that men turning 80 can generally look forward to about eight more years of life. He didn’t mention what the statistics say about the quality of that life – I would assume that a few of those additional eight years of “life” may consist of an inexorable spiral downward, rife with pain and deterioration of joints, organs and bodily functions. But after those eight years? Yes, death.
And what about beyond death? Is there anything there? I don’t share the religious faith that so many friends and family members profess – that somehow we live on or our souls live on after we die. This is all reflected in an earlier article I wrote about life and death so I won’t add to it. But some recent articles I’ve read make a lot of sense and add some additional dimensions to what I wrote earlier.
One, composed by that brilliant writer who authors “The Marginalian”, formerly “Brain Pickings”, Maria Popova, offers some really sensible and reasonable explanations in her article “What Happens When We Die”. In her article, Ms Popova quotes extensively from the work of physicist/poet/novelist Alan Lightman. When we die, whether we are buried or cremated, our remains, composed of the basic elements and their billions of atoms, are eventually scattered around the world and join the air, water, and plants which nurture further life. In that regard I guess, we are indeed immortal, but in a strikingly different way than theologians would have us believe.
Philosopher George Yancy, in a February 2022 posting of Truthout discusses the complexity of death and its contemplation, in the context of the almost (then) one million covid deaths in the US. He laments the tragic extinguishing of the unique and singular lives of so many people killed in the pandemic and otherwise. No one has come back from death to explain its mysteries to us; we strive to understand death exclusively from this side and can understand only that death is an essential part of life. It can be said that death defines life. Everything we know that lives, also dies. Yancy notes that all major religions are based on their own explanations of death: they attest to “our human capacity to be touched by the fact of death, to make sense of it, and to respond to its mystery in deep symbolic and discursively differential ways.” But despite its universality, death remains a mystery. And it’s interesting how, when we’re young, the notion of death rarely crosses our minds. It is only with the creeping infirmity and inevitability of old age that we begin to contemplate death, which is really the final phase of life.
I encountered the phrase, “what’s remembered lives” while watching the recent award winning movie “Nomadland” on a streaming channel and was affected by the notion. I was struck by the fact that my sister Barbara and my parents, and various close relatives and a few friends, though having passed away, are quite alive to me. I can hear their voices and their laughter, recognize their mannerisms and movements and enjoy their company and companionship….in my memory. But when I die, they die with me. Well, maybe not profound, but nevertheless interesting. They are alive to me in the individual idiosyncratic way in which I remember them. And they will live as long as my own capacity to recall them exists.
And I do wish so much that they, particularly my parents, as I deal with the travails of old age, were still alive to talk to. I long to ask how it was for them as they got older – how they felt about it, how they thought of their respective lives and their children’s. As I mentioned in another article, I wish that I had asked them so much more about their lives growing up in Missouri (Dad) and North Dakota (Mom), and much more about how they both came to meet in the Pillar of Fire church and schools. And I know little about their struggles as a young couple in the church and how the arrival of each child affected their lives and work.
But most affecting for me are the memories of my parents’ personalities – their voices, their laughs, their casual banter with each other as my parents and much later as retirees in their home in Westminster, Colorado. Very alive for me too is the feeling of security and love I felt when I was visiting. Dad never showed the love as demonstratively as Mom. He always maintained a comfortable (for him) distance, unlike the tactile love Mom always showed – the hugs and the kisses which she bestowed so liberally on all of us children.
I cried myself to sleep last night. Well…not exactly, but I did get a bit choked up and shed some tears. For some reason, instead of sleeping, I had begun thinking about how I would like to die, and decided that I would like Conrad and Bobbie next to me, holding my hands and reminiscing about our lives together. And thinking about those years together – the high points and the lows of our shared lives – is what brought the tears (and is bringing a few now as I type).
With Conrad, I would mention and invite his recollection of throwing a football back and forth between us in the back yard of our home at 4919 E Altadena in Scottsdale. What a thrill it was to me to see him reach up and grab the ball while in full stride…if my throw was a good one and had led him sufficiently. I would also remember with Conrad, while at the same house, during one of our memorable Christmases, of his joyfully opening a gift I had wrapped for him – a huge Costco-sized box of Cheez-Its.
And so many of our father-son trips together between Colorado and Arizona are very pleasant to remember. Like the time we camped in Canyonlands, I think in the Ford Explorer, then made hot chocolate to warm us in the cold morning on a little stove we had brought along. Or the several times we traveled in the pickup/camper while little Conrad played “coins” in the back or on the front seat. And of course our wonderful ultimate father-son experience – hiking the Grand Canyon down to Phantom Ranch, staying two nights, then hiking back, both directions on the South Kaibab Trail. Then too, our shared car trip right before he turned 16 from Frankfurt, Germany to Vienna, Austria and back, during which we visited the sights in Nuremberg, Munich, Salzberg and Vienna, including the Belvedere Museum and its collection of famed paintings by Klimpt, Kokochka and Schiele. And later that summer spending time with various Friedlys in Missouri, seeing the gravestone of his namesake, the first Conrad Friedly in the US. And what a thrill it’s always been to work hand in hand on special projects with him – I would ask him to recall helping me with the new floor in Scottsdale, with the basement renovation in Vermont while he was in law school there, and me assisting him with the new floor in his Gallup, New Mexico house. And I could go on and on.
And while holding Bobbie’s warm little hand, I would invite her to join me in recalling some of the precious highlights of our lives together – our first date after I had called her home and asked her out, horrifying her little daughter Liza, then seven years old, who knew me only as her elementary school principal. Then we’d recall our first trip west together, meeting my parents and brothers in Colorado for the first time, and our trip to the Grand Canyon, where we befriended briefly a little puppy that we encountered outside our cabin and where I proposed to her on a now-inaccessible promontory below Yaki Point. We’d recall together our marriage ceremony in Duxbury, Massachusetts, her parents and my parents attending and the loading of a 26 foot U-Haul with what we deemed as “keepers” and necessities gleaned from our two households. Then our “honeymoon” driving the U-Haul across the country to Arizona, later to be joined by Bobbie’s daughters and the formation of our first family home together at 3152 West Kings in Phoenix. And certainly, we’d share memories of Conrad’s birth, our move to the “horse property” home at 6340 W. Surrey in Glendale. And we’d recall together other highlights like the move to Scottsdale, our foray overseas to work for the American School of Kuwait, and all the exciting travels emanating from that and other overseas ventures. And I could go on and on.
But perhaps I won’t be this fortunate. It’s much more likely that like so many people, I will die suddenly with a heart attack, or in the the crushed metal and flame of an auto accident or like yet many others, slowly in a hospital bed succumbing to the ravages of some disease or in a haze of numbing drugs to relieve the pain of failing organs and physical deterioration.
In addition to thoughts outlined above, another thing that I’ve noticed about myself lately is that I’m spending more and more time thinking about the past and recalling significant events in my life, also likely a symptom of old age. Much of my communication and correspondence with old friends and relatives consists of recollection of events from our shared pasts, sometimes complemented with old photos, and opinions and observations about common acquaintances or former colleagues. And if congruence of political opinion allows, we may discuss the current state of politics in the context of what politics used to be when we were younger and should be today. I have to say that these connections have become most meaningful, almost essential, at the age of 80, part of clinging to my identity, my place in the world and my importance as all slip away in old age.
And with a past that stretches back for decades and a steadily diminishing future for us, the same tendency permeates the discourse between my wife and myself. While we dwell on the developing lives of our children from time to time, it does appear that we also linger on the past – our own and the childhoods of our children more and more with advancing age. We have a few aims for the future but certainly many fewer than we had in our younger days. And most focus on the immediate future – this summer, this fall, next year, but not much further. Oh, and it seems that we talk about the weather more than ever.
Since we travel back and forth between Arizona and Vermont, we’ve attached a few goals to those trips, achieving several this past spring – sharing Zion and Bryce National Parks for the first time, then also finally getting to see and enjoy Yellowstone. We still intend to see Yosemite and the Redwoods and get to the Pacific northwest while we’re still physically able, perhaps on next spring’s trip from Arizona to Vermont. Also at some point it would be very pleasant to travel through southern Canada east or west on one of these trips.
My own personal goals, hopes and aspirations during a steadily diminishing future center on maintaining and perhaps even improving our lives in these two homes in which we live and on reading and writing. But maintaining two homes gets increasingly challenging. I don’t look forward to improvement projects the way I used to when I was younger. And everyday home maintenance – cleaning, washing windows, repairing broken faucets, fixing roofs or painting walls and ceilings, gets very dreary and tiresome. Maintaining our gardens and lawn in Vermont too is sometimes a grind – I do get tired of planting trees, mulching the gardens and mowing the lawn.
Other activities used to include music but my arthritis has taken much of the pleasure out of playing the guitar so mostly I just listen. But they still include writing and those goals keep me going each day. I have 30-40 articles in various stages of completion so finishing them one by one, plus adding a few on other topics along the way, give me some tangible and achievable aims for the future. I know I’ll never be the writer I want to be but whatever I can produce gives me pride and pleasure and some motivation for the next attempt. And although I write primarily for myself, along the way a few other readers have enjoyed some of what I’ve written.
So this is where I am at 80 years old – still plugging along and trying to live as full and as complete a life as I am able, living day to day, week by week and month by month until we move back to Arizona, then its the same there until we move back here, always trying to live as best we can, squeezing some pleasure out of our day to day tasks, our occasional sightseeing, communication with children and travels. We’ll see how long it all lasts.
And finally, there’s a wonderful Cheryl Wheeler song about an elderly couple that seems in many ways to reflect what and where we are today. These few lines from “Quarter Moon” summarize much of what I’ve written above and provide a fitting conclusion for this article:
“And they speak about their lives as almost gone
Waiting for the sunset
From an old and distant dawn.”