Growing up, I always knew that I was different from my friends. My parents were quite a bit older than most of theirs. In fact, my dad was 57 and my mother 40 when I was born. My dad would tell a story about sitting in the labor and delivery waiting room with all the young fathers-to-be. Someone apparently asked him if he was a new grandfather. I think he always took a certain pride in that. But as the course of my own life took shape, it probably wasn’t a surprise, at least to some of my friends, that I pursued a calling to ministry with older adults.
When I turned 57 a few years ago, I would ponder (and still do ponder) what it must have been like to chase a toddler around at that age. What was it like for my father to go through my kindergarten year at 63, elementary band concerts at 67, the onset of my teen years at 70? What was it like teaching a slightly rebellious 16-year-old to drive at 73, going to soccer games at 75 and attending my college graduation at 79? I was overwhelmed going through those milestones with our sons when I was years younger than my dad did at his age!
My dad, a quiet, humble man, worked as a watchmaker and jeweler, a trade he learned when he returned from World War I as a combat amputee upon his release from Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He was persistent, hard-working and loving. He never complained or waivered in his love for our family, unusual as it may have been. My dad worked full time until he was 75 in the watch department of the classic Hess Brothers Department Store in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He never let his disability stop him or serve as an excuse for not living to his utmost potential.
My Dad, the Aging Hero
My dad is a hero to me for his grit and determination to support his family. He is a model for following his faith in God, to do good for others and to make life better for those in the next generation.
He inspired certain qualities and skills in me. For one, he could assess and fix just about any gadget, motor, clock or watch. Although he hated to see the new cheap throwaway watches replace the handcrafted timepieces like Hamilton or Bulova, my dad could take them apart and put them back together with no parts left behind.
He was also devoted to the church and served on consistory, flowing down our sloping center aisle without a cane to support him as the ushers brought the offering plates back to the pastor. Most people didn’t realize he walked with a prosthesis. His patience and kindness were also instructive and inspirational to the person I have become. I hope these qualities have passed through me to his two grandsons whom he would not live to meet.
Lessons from My Father
There are other aging heroes in my life. I continue to meet many along the path of my work at United Church Homes. But the lessons of my father linger as I reflect on my own life and work. Unlike many societies and cultures, ours doesn’t always venerate the role of elders. But we need what elder people, and those aging heroes, have to share. We may not count on wisdom, but certainly there is a lot to be said for lived experience. There are qualities of character and deeper values above our narrow field of vision that our elders provide.
My dad may not have known all he would eventually teach me that day long ago in the hospital waiting room. His life may have changed in ways he had yet to imagine. However, he shared the values, the grit and the love he knew in his own life. To me, that defines a heroic life. I hope I will have done as much when I look back over my own years, and I hope the same for my sons when they look back over theirs.