Recently we had dinner with good friends. Sitting around their fire pit, we amazed at how quickly our 20s had segued into our 50s. One of our children is married and one of theirs is getting married in a month. When did they grow out of diapers, soccer matches and math tests?
When faced with the thought of aging, it’s easy to slip into melancholy. I find myself wanting years back, hoping for more time. But I take solace in having discovered at least a part of the elusive fountain of youth— and all because I know Betty and Charles.
Betty, a friend from church, is a willowy lady who breezes in with her coat flapping open. Her eyes twinkle as only eyes that have seen it all can. She has a large family for whom she cooks dinner every Sunday—Southern style dinners plentiful enough for her fullback grandsons. Her kids have told me they arrange their lives around Sunday dinners; who would want to miss them? Nurturing her family is one of Betty’s gifts, paling only to the way she feeds the souls in her community. She is a reliable visitor to people in hospitals and nursing homes, visiting out of care and concern, without a need for recognition or glory. She is constantly on the road, constantly busy—perhaps a throwback to her days as a nurse.
At my mother’s visitation, I remember Betty’s quick firm hug and whisper in my ear: “I hid a coffee cake under the desk. It’s for your breakfast.” That’s Betty—knowing the little gestures that are just what you need at the time. Her seemingly ceaseless energy is even more remarkable given that she’s approaching 90. To talk to her, to witness her schedule, one would estimate her age at closer to 50. Betty is someone I can’t keep up with.
Another nonagenarian is Charles, whom I also know through church—although our lives have followed a more circuitous path. He pastored the Methodist church where my family attended when I was a child. Once, as a young pastor, he was visiting our home when a mud slide filled the basement. There’s a story—embellished over the years—about Charles finding my baby shoe amidst all the mud. He never let me forget the fact that he christened me. “Behave! Don’t make me look bad!” he would admonish when we reconnected at another church years down the road. By that point he was retired and the friendship between our families rekindled. My husband nicknamed him Clarence (of It’s a Wonderful Life fame) because there is an angelic look to Charles. To be in his presence is to know that God is good and faith is worthwhile.
Over the years I’ve heard countless tales from Charles about his time in the Army, his early interest in engineering, his stint teaching, and his time as a Methodist pastor. He is the epitome of a circuit rider. His youthful nickname was Red, although I don’t remember his flaming red hair. My reverence of him grew as I discovered how real he is. I recall his stories of wringing the necks of chickens that parishioners brought to him when he was a young father. I’m not sure what response I expected when I asked if it bothered him to kill the chickens—something saintly I suppose—but he just shrugged and said, “I love fried chicken!”
One of the facets that I always admired most about Charles was his commitment to his wife Ruth. Theirs was a marriage that spanned over six decades—an example of the powerful yin and yang of true love. Ruth had Alzheimer’s for 10 years during which Charles was utterly devoted to keeping her at home and managing every aspect of her care. An avid walker, he did his daily three mile treks around the couple’s acreage so he could be close to home. To this day, he uses the word “privilege” when he speaks of her care. As Ruth declined, I witnessed Charles tired, frustrated, and sad… but never angry. Never lacking hope or purpose.
I have fond memories of weekly dinners at a local restaurant with Charles and my mom before he moved away. Within a six week span, they had both lost their spouses, and those dinners were bright spots in lonely weeks—not only for them but for me who warmed vicariously in the light. As I listened to the stories, my present cares fell away. Now almost 94, Charles lives in an assisted living community near his children. Up until the COVID crisis he still walked over a mile a day outside. He also stays up on current events, does T’ai Chi, leads a Bible study, and volunteers at a Methodist church (in walking distance).
What I have learned from knowing Betty and Charles is that their ages are just numbers. They give me hope for what I have to look forward to: my life that in so many ways has only just begun. There are grandchildren—whole lives—that I can’t even imagine at this moment. What distinguishes folks like Charles and Betty, keeps them from seeming old, is that they have purpose. For them, there are tomorrows—people to take care of and things to care about.
Charles and I are pen pals, his letters written in elegant cursive scrawl, but we have not corresponded in several months. This morning I was feeling isolated—tired of being inside, fatigued with chatter about COVID, so I called Charles. I needed to hear that familiar lilt of Southern gentility. Over the course of the next hour we leisurely moved from one topic to another. He told me about moving to the log cabin on his grandparents’ farm in Southern Tennessee when his father lost his job during the Great Depression. (I asked if that’s where he learned to kill chickens and he laughed that deep throaty laugh that dares you not to smile). He asked about my children and said he was proud of them. He reminded me that there’s nothing as important as family.
Knowing Charles was stationed in France and Germany during World War II, I asked how that era compared to this. I could tell by his voice that the current isolation is difficult for him. He is not allowed to do his walks outside; instead, he paces a mile from one end of his apartment to another, back and forth, over and over.
“This is harder than in the war, because then I had something to look forward to. I had a wonderful wife waiting at home for me,” he said wistfully. “Right now it’s hard to have meaningful activity.” Charles, like all of us, needs human contact.
Perhaps the COVID shutdown will not only give us time to assess the meaningful parts of our lives that we take for granted, but will enable us to focus on what we want our lives to be, no matter what age we are. It’s easy to define your purpose—it is defined for you—when raising young children. In the middle years, though, purpose is something we must seek, and I am convinced from knowing Betty and Charles that purpose makes the difference between age and aging.
Before we hung up, Charles issued a blessing that seemed chillingly prescient at the time: “I hope you have a good life.” Not a good day, week or month, but life. Maybe he has realized that you never know when a goodbye is final. Or perhaps he was again taking the opportunity to teach me, as he has throughout my life. Charles wanted me to know the secret: that having a good life is a choice.
If I can follow in the footsteps of Charles and Betty, the road ahead is worth traveling, and age may always be just a number.