The Incredible Shrinking World

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We gave a surprise party for my Dad when he turned 90 last year, and I had a lot of time to think back on his remarkable ability to find new sources of fulfillment and joy as the years have taken their toll.

Fifteen years ago, he tragically lost his only son. My sweet brother was brutally murdered in his own home. I watched as my dad took the lead for our paralyzed family, clawing his way through the shock and pain of that nightmare, in much the same way that he had crawled through the snow during the Battle of the Bulge after he was badly injured and left for dead.

Eventually, he found some sort of distraction and energy in sports, doing surprisingly well for a man of 75.  A quadruple bypass was scary but he recovered well. The carotid procedure went well too. Then his back began to go from the severe scoliosis. First it was the golf, then the skiing, then the tennis. All gone. Back surgery followed failed back surgery, each one seeming more invasive and frightening than the last.  One day at a car wash, someone told him he had blood on the back of his shirt.  Pieces of the metal that were holding his spine together had broken free, worked their way out of his body and pierced his skin.  They patched him up and he marched on, if more slowly, enjoying a beer, his friends, even parties, despite the damage.

When the pain got beyond bad, a neurologist told my dad he was amazed he could walk at all, because his spinal cord was basically the only thing holding the two halves of his body together. The neurologist said most people would be curled up on a sofa in agony. Another major surgery was planned and, at 80, we knew the risks.  He made it through, and my husband and I sat with him in the hospital room afterwards, all of us laughing together about how slurred his speech was from the meds.

But it wasn’t the meds. We were sitting there watching him have a stroke.

The shrapnel in his head from WWII made the MRI difficult, but they managed to assess the damage and rehab began immediately. He was grouchy and frustrated, but he carried on. His speech went from “word salad” to perfectly understandable over the months. It seemed and still seems an act of will, though all due credit to the excellent medical team.

A couple of years later, when the peripheral neuropathy set in, he searched and searched (and is still searching) for an answer to the pain.  Getting out and socializing became a major endeavor, and though he did as much as possible, he gradually became mostly housebound. He could still walk around the block with his cats, the neighbors keeping a close eye, but it was a long journey to the solace of the shady little park.

In a spare room, he began to build an elaborate train set echoing the one he had built decades ago that we’d loved so much as kids. The electrical engineer in him came out as he worked on the tiniest of switches and lights and tracks and motors till the train set filled the room, the engine chugging along, whistle blowing. He fussed for hours over the parts under a magnifying lamp we got him, enjoying every second of it. He created houses and shops and hills and factories for the journey, with tiny people going about their business—a miniature world.

When that became too much because of all the bending, he discovered his back yard. My dad, who had never been concerned about anything but keeping the grass mowed and who had always seen weeds as an enemy of the people, suddenly discovered the beauty and tranquility of nature. He couldn’t do it himself, but he found a wonderful woman who transformed his average suburban plot into a secret garden filled with little trails lined with flowering shrubs and perennials and huge fragrant climbing roses.

When he could no longer walk around the block with his cats, he got a scooter. And when that proved to be too much, he began to take the scooter the few yards into the back garden and feed the birds.

Now he sits on his deck and watches the birds and waits for things to bloom. His younger friends have never deserted him and neither has his resilience. Photos of his son surround him. His ability to adapt as more of his movement, flexibility and strength have disappeared is utterly remarkable. If he’s not a model for aging well, I don’t know who is.