A Full Life

Today is my father’s 88th birthday. I believe his desire to socialize and his sense of humor have contributed to a long prosperous life. My mother, at age 85, takes good care of him, and they are fortunate to be able to spend summers in Maine and winters in Florida.

My dad experienced the Great Depression and then married my mother before departing for Africa and Italy to serve in the Army during World War II. While on a reconnaissance mission, not far from the Arno River, the day before his 26th birthday, he stepped on a land mine and lost the lower portion of his leg.

With the aid of an artificial leg he carried on a lifetime of activities, raising three kids, completing a graduate degree in chemistry while working full time, and playing lots of golf. People never realized he had a disability. As a kid, when I was angry with him he would tell me I could kick him in the leg, then he put his left leg forward. It always brought a smile.

At age 75 a stroke took the use of his right hand and made speech difficult for him. It did not take away his great sense of humor and positive attitude. He learned to write with his left hand, and continued to use the computer — teaching me how to use publishing software programs. He snapped one-handed digital pictures and wrote Newsletters for a group of Floridian friends who call themselves the O’Hellions. In writing he would poke fun at their card game conversations and the following week his letter would be read aloud. You never heard such laughter!

In a phone conversation with my mother yesterday she related their social activities of the week. Last Saturday a neighbor, David, dropped in to wish my father a Happy Veteran’s Day and my folks invited him for dinner. Later in the week David made a big salad, bought pizza, and stayed to enjoy it with them. Another night, Bob, from across the street, popped in for a glass of wine. Two afternoons Bruce, from across the street, stopped in to chat and to help them with a few odds & ends. Darla, in the next house down, delivered freshly made biscuits. Tonight my folks will take sisters Jamie and Doria — two daughters of old family friends — to dinner to help celebrate my father’s birthday. This is an example of a fairly routine week for them in Florida.

Their neighborhood in Maine is the exact opposite. My mother has often referred to it as “Dullsville.”

Last spring, as my father was trying to regain some weight and balance after another stroke, I spent a week helping them close the Florida house and return to Maine for the summer. I wanted to enjoy a walk in the Florida sunshine but hated to leave my father sitting inside by himself. So I borrowed wheel chair from Sarah, who lives at the end of the street, with a plan to push him while I took a brisk walk. To my surprise he said, “No – I want to push the wheel chair – not sit in it!” He pushed, and when he got tired he sat, and I pushed. After a week of daily walks and talks he was eating better, sleeping soundly, and encouraged at how far he was able to walk.

Back in Maine, with his own brand new wheel chair, he exercised by himself outside and then sat in the drive-way to enjoy the sun. One after another, the neighbors came out of their houses to talk with him or stopped to chat as they were driving by. My folks began to meet and know neighbors they had hardly seen for the 15 years. That night my father asked my mother to make a cardboard sign. The next day, as he sat wearing a jacket and knit hat in the wheel chair at the end of the driveway, he held the sign that said, “WILL WORK FOR FOOD.”

No more “Dullsville.”

Written November 2006