Monday, April 25, 2022

The Privilege of Growing Old

 I'm amazed these days at how readily one memory can spark another with so many criss-crossing connections over the years.

Reading the newspaper list "Daily Birthday" of celebrities, both major and minor, the other day, I noted that Johnny Tillotson turned 84. Even back in the day, Tillotson was a "B-List" teen idol eclipsed by Elvis, the Beatles, etc. But to some die-hard fans, he was the true king.

My friend Marie Traina, who was the president for life of his national fan club, was his greatest die-hard fan. She described herself as a "perpetual teeny bopper" and, indeed, maintained a youthful, enthusiastic attitude all her life -- whether she was singing Johnny's praises or cheering on Northwestern's basketball team or simply being a caring friend.

But there was a tragic twist to her story: Marie never had the privilege of growing old. She was murdered when she was one month shy of her 29th birthday.

Many other dear friends have passed away since, but Marie was cheated out of many more years of life than the rest of us. I've never stopped being sad for her and have never stopped missing her.

Celebrating my 77th birthday today, I feel incredibly blessed with years, life experience and the people who have brought so much joy to my life.

Beyond the predictable aches and pains and medical issues our advanced years can bring, there is so much to celebrate. 

Like what?

Being increasingly comfortable in our own skin. This is a time when we finally make peace with the imperfections of our bodies. When we were young and our bodies closest to perfection, we were, too often, relentlessly critical of ourselves. We thought we were fat when we weren't. We agonized over noses too large or teeth too crooked or hair that refused to conform to a bubble-do.

Too often, we had help from society in our scathing self-assessments. Briefly in my twenties, I pursued an acting career. At 118 pounds and 5'4", I was considered overweight by agents, casting directors and acting coaches. I was even cast in a comic role as the "Fat Dancer" in a musical revival. I hated my body and I wasn't alone. Not long ago, some neighbors and I were comparing photos taken in our twenties. We marveled at how beautiful we all were. But we didn't feel beautiful then. And what a shame we couldn't enjoy our singular beauty -- at any weight or shape or size.

It's easier now to relax and accept what is. There are many days when I actually do feel beautiful. There are many days when I can laugh about wrinkles and bat wings and other unmistakable signs of aging. I worry about and watch my weight only for health reasons. 

And I've come to realize that one's worth is intrinsic and has more to do with character than appearance. Didn't we always know that? But we didn't necessarily feel that level of self-acceptance back in the day. We're more likely to be blessed with that acceptance of ourselves as we mature into older age.

Being thankful for the health we do have. Very few of us have not had our health challenges as we've aged. I grew up from a sickly childhood overshadowed by bulbar polio and disseminated histoplasmosis that left me with severely scarred lungs. But in adulthood, I was blessed with robust good health and strength. I danced for many years. I got into running in my thirties. I've enjoyed gym workouts for decades. But there have been hints of new limitations in the past 20 years. I survived thoracic surgery to remove an esophageal growth and the upper lobe of my right lung in 2003. I survived a heart attack later that same year. And in 2020, a temporarily disabling accident kept me immobilized and in a wheelchair for nearly a year.

How wonderful it feels to have a reprieve: to be mobile again and able to walk, bike, swim and get back to the gym; to wake up feeling healthy and hopeful. I know what it is to lose one's mobility and to nearly lose one's life. I no longer take the ability to walk for granted. I welcome every day that dawns, knowing that everything could change in an instant.

Gaining perspective on what truly matters. With age and experience, we learn to filter out what doesn't really matter and to focus on what does. I used to obsess about professional success and getting ahead, building a platform, selling books. To be honest, I still care more about my continuing career than most of my peers, but I'm not obsessive to the exclusion of everything else.

I was talking today with my friend Chuck, a recently retired physician whom I have known for nearly 50 years. Our lives have been intertwined on several levels over the years -- an ill-fated romance when we were young, a successful professional partnership on four books, one of them a best-seller some years back, and an enduring friendship. I told him how I regretted often putting deadlines and other work priorities ahead of people who mattered to me. He sighed and said "I know...I did too..with too many. When it was the people who really mattered most." And we promised that we would focus more going forward on the loved ones in our lives. Some friends are way ahead on this one: I've happily watched some driven professionals of my youth becoming doting grandparents, insisting that these are the best years ever. 

Treasuring the loved ones of our youth and welcoming new people into our lives.  There is something quite wonderful about having family and friends one has known for years or a lifetime. There is only one adult from my childhood still living: Sister Rita McCormack, a nun who was my brother's first grade teacher and my special friend since I was 8 and she was 23. She turned 92 this past February and, despite some physical frailty, she is the same vibrant spirit who inspired and encouraged me as a child. We have morphed from being teacher and student to being dear friends. She knows how far I've come since then. I know what she has endured and how she has triumphed. 

The same is true of many lifelong friends -- some from grade school, high school and college and many from my first job at 'TEEN Magazine -- with whom I shared youth and a full list of "firsts", the highs and the lows, the life experiences and so much growth over time. 

Being in a marriage of 45 years is a particular pleasure. Bob and I see each other both as the lively 30 year olds we were when we met and as the gentler and wiser people we've become -- a kind of emotional collage that is both comforting and fun. 

Siblings can be immensely comforting, too, the age differences and even the spats of the past blurred by the joy of continuing to be there for each other. 

And it's a joy to welcome new people of all ages into our lives: not only the nieces and nephew who bring such love, hope and vitality but also our younger friends who are fun and supportive and patient and some new older friends who are a source of inspiration in aging.

Living fully in the present. Now that we know, with new clarity, that we have many more years behind us than we have years ahead, we have an opportunity to savor life anew. Whether it's the wind on my face as I ride my bike, the scent of jasmine growing outside my office, sudden affection from an often-aloof cat, the taste of a crisp salad or a juicy peach, the sound of a familiar song bringing happy or even bitter sweet memories, birdsong at twilight, a hug from a child, another chance to be kind... In short, everything that each new day has to offer, is an incredible blessing and a reminder that old age is, indeed, a privilege denied to many and that each day can be a celebration.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Magical Black Cats -- in Life and Memory

 I've always had a soft spot for black cats. When I was a child, we got our first cat -- a black Angora kitten we named Edie. Edie was a joy to all of us, but had a special love for my sister Tai, only a toddler at the time. Edie would wrap her paws around Tai's neck and hug her. She hugged Tai through some very tough times -- and losing her, when Tai was 14 -- was devastating. Tai and I have both had other cats through the years, all of them special, but our memories of Edie are everlastingly warm.

More recently, my husband Bob and I have treasured our own two black cats: Maggie and Ollie.

Maggie came to us during a time of sorrow. We had lost our beloved Timmy -- one of a bonded pair of brothers -- due to melamine poisoning during the pet food scandal in 2007. Timmy's brother Gus cried all night, every night, for three weeks until our vet suggested getting him a kitten to love and take care of. That kitten was Maggie and Gus loved her at first sight.



Bob felt a special bond, too. Maggie was a sleek, shiny Bombay, a black Burmese who had been dumped into rescue by a Beverly Hills breeder because she was such a homely kitten. She grew into a beautiful cat: loving, smart, kind and protective of Bob. When he would have epileptic seizures or night terrors, she would jump on his chest and put her paws around his neck. Once, when he had a seizure so severe that I called 911, she stayed on his chest, hanging on tight when the paramedics arrived even though she usually rushed to get under the bed when strangers would arrive at the door. Maggie was sweet to me and always seemed mindful that I needed love, too. But Bob was her most special human.


Ollie came to us seven years after Maggie -- a fortunate accident. I was in the L.A. area to promote my book "Purr Therapy" which was about the two cats -- Timmy and Marina --who had worked with me one day a week doing animal assisted therapy in my private practice. At one event -- Catoberfest in Santa Clarita -- there were rescue organizations offering animals for adoption. Taking a break from book signing, I walked outside and then I saw him. He was the poster kitten for unadoptable animals who needed financial support to keep living in rescue. His name at the time was "Herbie the Love Bug" and he was two months old, all soft black fur with a daunting past. He had been mutilated shortly after birth -- his right hind leg mostly severed. He also had a giant hernia. The newborn kitten had been thrown into a trash at the curb but was saved by his big voice -- a resounding yodel that never ceased to startle us -- that alerted a passerby who took him out of the trash and to rescue. He needed some expensive surgeries and was considered a long shot for adoption. I sent my husband a picture of him and Bob replied "Let's take him! Let's give him a good life!"


 We were able to keep that promise. Renamed Ollie, the little kitten survived three surgeries and never had another sick day. The most major of his surgeries involved the removal of the stump of his leg and his right hip. He was chasing lasers again three days after surgery. He could run like the wind on his three legs and jump as high as any of his feline companions. He loved to be cuddled, would come when called, purring as he jumped up to snuggle. He rushed to comfort me when my left foot was crushed in an accident in 2020, rubbing the casted foot and purring. He often was so busy saying a joyous "hello" that he was late to meals. He not only lived a good life, but also made ours better because he was with us. Someone's trash was truly our treasure.

There were times when we would look over at each other -- Bob cuddling Maggie, me cuddling Ollie -- and tell each other that black cats were magical and wonderful and that life was good.

Life is good, but also fragile. 

Maggie's health began to decline rapidly just as she was about to turn 14. She lost a significant amount of weight, suddenly looking skeletal. Always a very proper, well-behaved cat, she began to defecate outside the cat box. We cleaned up after her. We gave her special medication for her thyroid condition. And tried to love her back to good health. But love was not enough to keep her with us...and Maggie passed away in February 2022 just weeks shy of her 15th birthday.

There hasn't been a day that has passed without missing her. Our one consolation has been that our other cats have been healthy and are younger: Sweet Pea is 12, Hamish, 10 and Ollie, 7. I imagined enjoying Ollie's cuddles for many years to come and thought that he would most likely be the last of our surviving three to pass away.

Life can be surprising, strange and cruel.

I spent much of yesterday in bed, suffering flu-like side-effects after getting my second Covid booster shot. Ollie and his best buddy Hamish cuddled with me much of that time. I got up to feed them about 5 p.m. last night, noting that all three cats were eating their dinner enthusiastically. I returned to bed and fell asleep. When I woke up several hours later, I saw Ollie lying across the threshold of the bedroom door. I called to him, expecting his usual response: to make a running jump onto the bed and into my arms. But he was still. I moved closer. I spoke his name. I petted him and cupped his head in my hands. His neck was limp. His pupils were dilated. He wasn't breathing. Ollie was gone.

We were totally shocked. He hadn't shown any signs of illness or distress. He had had an ordinary day and a hearty dinner. Bob held him tenderly in his arms, telling him how much we loved him and what a wonderful cat he was. Part of this was saying "goodbye" but part was disbelief. How could he be so suddenly, inexplicably gone? Once again, we were quietly hoping love would overcome the inevitable. We checked and re-checked, hoping against hope that this was all a mistake, a misunderstanding, a bad dream. But he lay still in Bob's arms.

And so, in an instant, another magical black cat has become a memory. But, oh, what memories! And how blessed we were to have these two unforgettable black cats in our lives.