Monday, April 25, 2011

Quiet Milestones

Today I turned 66.

And I've been thinking of death.

Not my own death, not exactly.

Turning 65 was an exciting, public milestone.  I became eligible for Medicare, started collecting Social Security and Bob and I made our retirement dreams reality.

This year, the milestone is a quiet one not obvious to anyone who doesn't know me well: I've reached the age that my parents were when they died. How is that possible? Where did the time go?

Some reach that landmark birthday much earlier, of course.

Sharon Scace, who will be 43 next month,  lost her mother -- one of my dearest college friends -- when Lorraine was 42 and Sharon 19. And now Sharon is nearly a year older than her mother ever was. My heart aches when I think how young Lorraine was when she passed away -- and how much she missed: the graduations, weddings, the grandchildren and the successful careers of her two cherished daughters Sharon and Virginia. I had a birthday greeting from Sharon today, saying how much she enjoys the blog because she is already planning her own retirement. The tiny, sweet baby I held in my arms just as I was finishing graduate school is planning for retirement? Where did the time go?

I have always felt that, at 66, my parents died much too young, far too soon. But their lives at that point were quite different from the life I enjoy today.

My father described himself as "the man who has everything" -- including Parkinson's, diabetes, heart disease, depression, dementia, alcoholism, and prescription drug abuse.  Even before any major diseases struck him, he was always dying. When he got a bad cold or the flu, he would gather the family around his bed and announce that he was dying: "I see a choir of angels and there -- my sainted mother! I'll be going soon..." But he always recovered no matter how many death speeches he gave, no matter how much he abused his body.

Death caught him one hot July day as he circled fretfully around the front yard of his home in his motorized wheelchair, yelling at the UPS delivery man who, seeing him in the front yard and fearing an encounter, kicked a package off the moving truck at the end of the driveway instead of bringing it to the porch. His last words, according to a friend who was there, were not about angels or his sainted mother or loving messages for his family, but a string of curses at the UPS man before he collapsed with a heart attack.

Later, after I had arrived on the scene, police were going through items in his pockets. A policeman turned to me in surprise, extending my father's drivers license. "He was only 66?" he said. "Truly?"

"Truly," I said, blinking back tears, quietly agreeing with the policeman that the man lying on the ground, my father, looked many decades older.

My mother was exhausted at 66 from 38 years of being my father's wife and constant caregiver. She was diagnosed with a cardiac problem only a month after my father's death.  My parents did not get along and were chagrined when their lawyer told them firmly, when they were in their late fifties, that they didn't have enough money to get a divorce and live separately. So they lived on together in quiet desperation and constant stress. Then he died -- and I think she missed him more than she - or any of us- ever imagined.

Her doctor gave her heart medications, but her symptoms worsened. She began to have recurring dizziness and blackouts. One day, after a doctor's appointment, she called me to come get her at a shopping mall because she was feeling faint. Bob and I rushed to her, ready to take her to the emergency room. But, once we got there, she said she was probably just hungry and proposed lunch. When I put my arm around her, she felt very small, very stooped, suddenly elderly.

She brightened over lunch, talking about old boyfriends from her airline days, about how she was going to really work at losing weight, about how she had no interest in another marriage, but -- if she could get her weight down -- might welcome a torrid affair with the right person. She chuckled softly at the thought. Then she hugged us both and got into her car.  That was the last time I saw her alive. The next day, her next door neighbor of many years went into her unlocked house to check on her. He found her sitting in her favorite chair. Death had come so suddenly that she hadn't even had time to drop the newspaper she was holding.

Losing both of my parents, four months apart, feels like a lifetime ago and yesterday.

Life gives us no guarantees. But I'm hoping for many more birthdays. I'm working out and serious about losing weight.  I have an active social life and a lifestyle that includes many people and pursuits I love. More important, my husband Bob and I do get along and understand each other well and love each other in spite of or even because of such knowledge. 

Thinking about my parents at 66 makes me wistful. I wish my parents had known the love and joy Bob and I have known. I wish they had been able to slow the aging and onset of disease with good health habits. I wish they could have lived to be the proud grandparents of Nick and Maggie. I wish their lives had been longer and more satisfying. I wish so much that cannot be.

But what I wish for myself, Bob and all my friends of a certain age is just this: loving connections, peace within and the blessing of good health and happiness for many years to come.


  1. Oh, I can identify with this, Kathy. On my next birthday I will be as old as my own mother was when she too died at 66. My father, who was 9 years older, had lived until he was 70, but this still felt far too young.

    It must have been so hard for you to lose both of them in such quick succession. May you and Bob enjoy many more years of happy, healthy, fulfilling retirement.

  2. Happy Birthday! My own birthday is next week (I'll be MUCH older than you-68!)
    I have similar feelings about my parents. They stayed together for whatever reason, maybe it was that generation, but never had the pleasure of a marriage that Gary & I have had (we'll be married 49 years this year-where did the time go?)
    My father was not a good Dad and he died of complications of alcoholism at 67; my Mom chose to elevate his traits after he was gone, frustrating for me and my siblings. But she was a great Mom and lived to 79, dying not from her dreaded emphasema disease but from a painless brain tumor.
    AND...I could just copy and paste your last paragraph, changing "Bob" to "Gary!"
    Again, happy birthday. I enjoy reading your Blogs!

  3. Happy Birthday, Kathy! And MANY more! I, too, will be 66 -- in June. I am fortunate to have both my parents until my father died at 87. My mother has just turned 92. Both my grandmothers lived to the 90's -- so I've been very fortunate. All of a sudden it seems I've turned around and gone is scrawny gawky little Kathie John of 10 and boom here is a grumpy old crone who could shed more than a few pounds -- if not stone -- You know I remember watching the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981 -- I had not been in England quite a year -- and here comes their eldest child and his bride-to-be! It's shocking!!!
    Hope you are having a great day with lots of lovely surprises.

  4. Happy Birthday! Enjoy every day and never look back. Life is short, and with no warranties. Perhaps, our parents' habits and lifestyle stand as big lessons to all of us.

  5. Happy Birthday! Your wishes for yourself and others are lovely and realisstic goals. I wish you all the best as you start another year of retirement.

  6. I hope I've learned from the wise and not so wise choices my parents made. Sounds like you're doing fine.

    Celebrate as you are doing better than a lot of folks. To me you seem like someone who is responsible with eating habits and taking care of health as well. My husband had a cardiac bypass surgery two years ago. While I do not deny his family history, I feel that he could have taken better care of himself. Now one of my sons is doing the same thing. Over working, no exercise and not the right food. My second son and my daughter are doing their best to take care of health through exercise and eating healthy.
    Also, you and Bob:- Hold on to each other. That is great!!

  8. Happy Birthday youngun. Both of my parents are gone and it is true, we do learn what to embrace and what to avoid from our parents lives.
    The good thing is that you will be grandfathered in to Medicare and SS even if they change SS drastically. Aaahh.
    Another thoughtful post.

  9. Wow, what a story! Our relationship with our parents is very complicated, very deep-seated ... and always very interesting.

    Nevertheless, I try not to think about mine -- wanna give them the benefit of the doubt. But one thing my folks did give me was good genes in the longevity dept. My mom got breast cancer at age 58, but lived to 89. My dad survived TB in his early 40s, lived to be 91.

    Happy b'day, and may you have many more!

  10. I've been following your blog and can really relate, so much so that I was inspired to start mine, you can catch up with me at:


  11. Hi, I just found your blog and this post really resonated with me. I was so happy to read of the "quie milestones", its so true. I lost my father when I was 12 and my mother nearly four years ago when I was just 37. These 2 deaths have changed almost every "regular" milestone that one expects to have and I for years now have had my very own quiet ones on quite a regular basis and not over things people would expect :-) Last year I turned 40, this being a big enough milestone in itself, but this was nothing compared to the sense I had outlived my father who died at 39. No-one knew, not even me until a few weeks later, that the milestone was this, and not so much the BIG 40. Thank you for sharing your quiet milestone and I wish you a belated Happy Birthday. Sally, Brighton, UK