Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
A few days ago, I passed a sort of a birthday milestone, number 60. We spent the day driving through the Valley of Fire state park about an hour north of Las Vegas. It was a useful retrospective, since while 60 years is a pretty good hike for a human, it's less than a flash of light to rocks whose ages are measured in tens of millions of years.
There was a time when I thought 60 was ancient; right up there with the rocks. I couldn't imagine myself being that far along. And as I over-ate my way through my 40's, there was a time when I frankly assumed I would have boarded the bus before that point. But there was an intervention, a massive weight loss, and here I still am.
One of my favorite original aphorisms is that while ageing is inevitable, being old is a choice. My experience in life has brought me into conversation with two types of old men. One is the type who reaches a certain point -- different for each man -- where the infirmities of age have filled the conscious mind, when mortality has become painfully apparent. This is the man who sits around, groaning about his aches and pains and is simply waiting to die. The other is the man who, while suffering from the same maladies, refuses to allow them to imprison him. He stays active, both mentally and physically, and enthusiastically lives life, as they say, like there was no tomorrow. I've wanted to be that second guy.
Many of my friends tell me that I don't act my age. I take that as a compliment. I ride a motorcycle, I run 20 miles every week, and I hike at least one of those days. I remain a voracious reader, and delve into crossword puzzles whenever I can. I write, pursuing that dream of freelance writing. I have promised myself that I will have a book published before I depart this life. I do look forward to retiring in six years, but not because I'm that interested in not working, but because I want to have the free time to pursue all these interests. And travel.
I do struggle. I am neck-deep in the prostate years. Arthritis affects my hands. Every morning, it takes 10 to 15 minutes of dedicated exercise to loosen up the lumbar muscles so that I can stand fully upright. There are times when my conversation halts in midstream while I search frantically for a word, or try to keep my train of thought from disappearing over the hill. My intake of sugars and carbs has to be strictly monitored. Appointments are sometimes hard to remember. And then there are those 5 stents in my heart. But I work through those because I don't want those things to control what I can and cannot do.
There is a certain urgency in the things I do, because I acknowledge that there will come a day when I will have to divorce my motorcycle, stop running and hiking, because my body simply won't be up to the task. I know that day is coming. If I peer long and hard enough into the future, I can sense it's impending arrival, much like the light from an approaching train grows ever brighter in the tunnel.
I try not to look back too much, regrets being too burdensome to contemplate. But I have lived a reasonably full life. Born in 1955 in Paris, Tennessee. Moving to Independence, Missouri at age 6. Growing up in the Kansas City area, forging loyalties to sports teams that remain strong to this day. Meeting my wife, having our first two children and seeing my sister get married before our mother succumbed to cancer. Joining the Navy and seeing the world, 26 countries worth. Experiencing that penultimate moment when I shifted paths and shed the blue collar of industry for the white collar of the intelligence community, and the sacrifices that had to be made to realize that dream.
Growing and learning with my wife through 37 years of marriage, resulting in 4 children and 10 grandchildren. And treasuring those extremely rare moments when we are all together under the same roof.
It has not been a smooth path. I have stumbled, and sometimes fallen, but managed to regain my feet. I have made some truly colossal mistakes, but gained a few achievements. I am, at this point, reasonably happy, although a bit anxious about what may lie ahead. The only thing I know for certain is that I could not have predicted even one of these outcomes.
I know that if time travel were possible, I would have a lot to say to my younger self. Unfortunately, remembering my younger self, I would not have heeded the advice. It is a sad fact that wisdom, however you want to define it, can only be accumulated through some very painful processes. If you eliminate those challenges, there's not much one could learn about life, and less to pass along to succeeding generations.
I had a near-death experience in 2003, so there is no mystery about what lies beyond this life. And no fear either. It is the process that I treat as grim. I remember my father and what the last few years of his life were like. This man of immense dignity and intelligence was reduced to physical helplessness and mental emptiness. It is that prospect that bothers me. What makes it really bad is that I know I will have little to no control over those conditions as they inevitably overtake me.
But I won't dwell on that for now. I will keep busy, stay active, and live each remaining day like the gift it was intended to be. I will seek joy and fulfillment in everything I do. Hopefully, that will be enough to make the dusk of this very long day easier to take.