Mar 23, 2014

With Love to my father...

 From Aging Famously: 

Follow Those You Admire to Living Long and Well    

My father taught me to look to the stars: The Big and Little Dippers, and Orion the Hunter whose belt shone three stars in a row. He also taught me to love laughter--as well as Virginia Woolf, haiku, butterflies, Broadway, old movies and the streets of New York. He taught me to work every day at something I believe in. To eat what is put in front of me. To say “thank you” and “I'm sorry” and mean it. To be on time and never to go to bed angry. To walk the beach in summer and winter. To save bees and bats and anything that lives. He taught me to keep going when he no longer could.

In 1984, my father, Everard Wilson Meade, was 71 when my mother died suddenly in her sleep. She was 72. My father, a would be actor, claimed heritage from Episcopal ministers with meager bank accounts; my mother’s father, a traveling journalist also of modest means, met my grandmother while on assignment in Virginia. My parents likewise married on a dream and a dime. They were still in college and had no professional prospects. Fifty years later my father could be proud of a successful New York advertising career after which he taught for decades at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Graduate Business. My mother backed his ambitions, saving money, making nests and guiding his decisions with good nature and bold, clear-eyed counsel. She decorated their house handsomely with family antiques and flea market finds. After all their years together, my parents were still entertaining and planning trips even as he booked the Ritz and she the Ramada. They were still best friends.

My father said my mother’s death felt “like a black hole in space.” Her death left him alone in the house they'd designed together. At first he said, “It's your mother's house. I don't feel I should move a thing.” But slowly--blessed with good health and the affection of family, friends and even lovers--he found new ways to move forward. He adapted to his losses, and although he had no apparent master plan for successful aging, his innate solutions served him well. He was my hero and a role model with wise steps to follow.

He left complaints at home and brought good humor to the table.

He vowed not to worry about any-thing longer than three days.

Every morning, he dressed in his best and packed his briefcase, off to teach and write at the Darden School. When he reached the age of mandatory retirement, he continued writing for the School’s alumni magazine and sending out manuscripts for adventure novels first drafted in long hand. The year after my mother died, my father wrote and published The Dragonfly, a novella about her childhood. Writing remained his first and last defense.

He also volunteered his writing and acting talents to the Dyslexia Center and Recording for the Blind.

He reread Ian Fleming, Shakespeare, Nabokov and Virginia Woolf.

He drew whimsical cartoons for all our holidays and birthdays.

He called old friends and furthered new friendships with the young. When their babies were born, he wrote letters welcoming them to the world. Many letters would be framed or saved as keepsakes.

My father planned his first travels alone, joining a group trip to England. He made new friends on the journey and returned to visit them on many subsequent springs. One year he took his grand-daughter, Virginia, with him. Another summer, he and his grandson, Jamie, flew to Maui where they bought flowered shirts and marveled at volcanoes and waterfalls.

He swam, walked, and chinned himself on the bathroom door. He stood straight and tall and stayed  “on the wagon” for more than 40 years.

In his late 80s, my father had several small car wrecks but, when approached, graciously by my husband, John, agreed to stop driving. It was a tough loss of mobility and freedom that could have cloistered him at home. Instead, he hired his housekeeper to drive him to the grocery store, and to the Business School library where he drafted new stories, lunched with faculty and read The New York Times. When friends asked his whereabouts, he impatiently replied, “At work!”

On Sundays, my father took a taxi to the early service and sang off-key at St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

At home, he let the paint peel and the roof leak.

He said, “take it” to anything anyone admired. And when he said, “I love you,” they were easy words for his only child to return.

He often volunteered, “I'm a happy man.”

While my father fought retirement and remained relatively strong, I eventually became concerned about his living alone, however much he insisted on his independence. I was relieved when he accepted my prodding to have a University student rent a back room although their paths would rarely cross.

I worried that he ate less and slept more; he dismissed cataracts and late-developing diabetes. When he was 88, I saw signs of mini strokes and forgetfulness and an increased effort to mask changes with good-natured reassurances and an unusually fertile vocabulary.

I remember that late January afternoon. My father walked me to my car in the cold. I smoothed down his blowing hair and red shetland sweater. We hugged and said goodbye.

The next morning, the housekeeper called in panic. My father had collapsed at the dining room table while a friend helped him pay bills. I raced to him as medics strapped my father to a gurney, sped him to the hospital and into intensive care. Twenty-four hours later, he was diagnosed with viral encephalitis, a rare and aggressive attack to the brain.

For a month, he hovered near consciousness. I came to see him every day, and every day I feared would be his last.

Incredibly, my father fought his way back to leave the hospital, only to spend months at a nursing home before returning home to around-the-clock care. His doctor, a hospice specialist who would generously guide his care, said, “Your father is amazing. Most men half his age would not have lived.”

I learned that my father's will to live was indeed amazing. I saw a man much reduced, sometimes bewildered, but by nature still gallant, dignified and fighting the fates with humor. When a friend came the nursing home and asked how he spent his day, my father replied, “I get out of bed and put my feet on the floor. Then I take my pulse. If I have one, I shave. If not, why bother?”

After coming home from the nursing home, my father asked his housekeeper to drive him back to the Darden library one more time. Work was still the staff by which he stood.

It would be his last visit to the University he loved, and when soon confined to home, he seemed decided that life, albeit compromised, was still worth living. On my arrival each morning, he rose out  of bed, tied on his paisley bathrobe and asked the news. When I told him that I was working on a documentary about a 107-year-old local lady, he smiled and asked, "Does she date?"

Other days he struggled with confusion. He reported seeing white tigers loose in the yard. He believed he'd piloted the Enola Gay with the atom bomb aboard and begged me to apologize to the women and children of Japan.

Even in confusion, my father remained courteous and drew on courage that put pleasure before pain. He enjoyed the summer's heat, sitting beside the ‘50s pool eating fresh tomato sandwiches lathered in         mayonnaise. In the fall we drove the country back roads as he complimented the trees for their rich colors. We listened to tapes of Bing Crosby, Strauss, Mozart and Garrison Keillor. And I read him favorite haiku, as well as his own spare poems of London pigeons, swans and whale songs. After reading his last poems scrawled in pencil -- Only Now and The Cost of Living -- he asked me who’d written them.

Sometimes my father said he felt like he was 100. Christmas night he sunk into a deep sleep that lingered for more than a week. He lived until January 5, 2000, seeming to have willed himself into the new century and three days past his ninetieth birthday. I was thankful for his many years, but when they ended, even 90 felt too few.

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