Q. My once-active father is 77, hobbled by arthritis and keeps asking, “What’s the purpose of growing old? Who needs us?” What should I tell him?
A. Tell him what Cicero told the world 2,000 years ago: “It’s not age that is at fault, but rather our attitude toward it.”
Next, I’d insist that he read Florida Scott-Maxwell’s “The Measure of My Days,” especially where she says: “We who are old know that age is more than a disability. It is an intense and varied experience, almost beyond our capacity at times, but something to be carried high. If it is a long defeat it is also a victory, meaningful for the initiates of time, if not for those who have come less far.”
Now to directly address your question, one that endures: The old have a responsibility as mentors and guardians of the past. Moreover, we are tutors to our families, along with all others who care to learn.
Here, to buttress my point, is a narrative lesson sent by Roger Brooks, 66, of Binghamton, N.Y. A former social worker, Brooks grew up in Miami, reared in part by a beloved and feared grandmother. Polish-born Bessie Elman was a woman of convictions, fiercely loyal to her Jewish faith, along with opera broadcasts on the radio and discipline in the household.
On this morning, she loudly announced “the special bus” was coming and so Roger must get up, at once. “No more sleeping,” she commanded. In record time, Roger washed and dressed and was out the door. “Run, run,” Grandma ordered: “Stop the special bus. I’m coming.”
Ahead, in the distance, the Miami city bus approached. Obedient Roger stationed himself to halt the lumbering vehicle his grandma had identified as the special bus. If he had to, he was ready to lie down in busy 27th Avenue.
Smiling now, and with excitement softening her face, Grandma Bessie arrived and awkwardly pulled herself up into the waiting bus. Instead of depositing her money, however, she reached into the driver’s space and asked to shake his hand.
“I come here today to congratulate you,” she said to a somewhat startled, yet obviously pleased, driver. He was a young African-American. And then, Bessie Elman turned and left this bus she’d deemed special, special because the first driver of color hired in hometown Miami drove it.
“This,” she added, “is a moment in history, a beautiful moment. I meant for both of us to be witnesses to this special bus.”
Roger Brooks, born an identical twin, was separated from his brother because an adopting family in Binghamton wanted only one mouth to feed in that long-ago May of 1938. Following four years in foster homes and cared for by inept or dysfunctional adults, Roger found his way into the hearts and home of widow Bessie and her divorced daughter, Mildred Elman. Twin Anthony Milasi became an “only child” to an Italian-Catholic couple who believed a patron saint had favored them with this adopted son.
By serendipity, these separated monozygotic - born of one egg - twins were happily reunited 24 years later. Neither knew his brother was alive. They were thereafter portrayed on television and in newspapers and magazines - yes, Reader’s Digest - as, “The Twins Who Found Each Other.”
I wrote the book of the same name. As a trio, we traveled the United States, appearing on TV and in bookstores, shamelessly hawking our 1969 Morrow tome.
Tony has gone on to be uncommonly successful as a Binghamton businessman; Roger, with empathy and sensitivity learned from Grandma Elman, and others, became a social worker, a good husband and father and now grandfather.
He now has crafted the “Special Bus” story for his extended family, a reminder of how values are sometimes taught from one generation to the next.
- A quote for the week: “I want to tell people approaching and perhaps fearing age that it is a time of discovery. If they say, ‘Of what?’ I can only answer, ‘We must each find out for ourselves, otherwise it won’t be discovery.’” Florida Scott-Maxwell writes this in “The Measure of My Days.”
-Bulletin news: Age does not appear to be a factor in kidney donation or transplant, according to exciting new research from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.
- Shame on Dr. C. Everett Koop, once proud U.S. Surgeon General, who today is a poster boy for a medic-alert device. Print ad says your choice: a nursing home, or live at home with our beeper.
- Lines we wish we’d written: “Everything you think you know about constipation is probably wrong.” Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter.
- Actress/comedienne Phyllis Diller, who turns 88 in July, confessed to 15 “cosmetic self-enhancement” surgeries. She then received an award from the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery for her courage, along with her money.