The juice. Some people have it, some people don’t.
Chuck had it, right up to the time he died recently at age 91. About a year ago, my wife and I had dinner with Chuck’s daughter and her husband at their home in Sun City West, where they spend the winter season. Chuck, who also had a home there, joined us.
He arrived at their home – driving himself, no less – at the same time we did. He was bent and moved slowly, but he managed to make a beeline to the wet bar, where he poured himself a healthy three fingers of scotch. Then he took notice of my wife.
“My, you’re a pretty lady,” he said to her, with a twinkle in his eye. “Too bad you’re married.”
The rest of the evening was equally as delightful. He regaled us with stories of his youth, memories of two wives he had outlived, children and grandchildren, the widow down the street who he swore had taken an interest in him.
I remembered thinking, what is it that makes some people so alive and vital, even when the body is frail and running down, while others fold up the tent in their fifties and sixties, their bodies still intact but their zeal for life worn thin by the dull knife of disappointment and regret?
Certainly part of it is rooted in the biological basis of temperament. In my own case, I inherited from my father a taste for melancholy and a sense of the absurdity of much of life. Fortunately, I also have his sense of humor. My father and I spent many an hour sitting around the kitchen table toward the end of his life, laughing loudly at the news of the day and what passes for intelligent life.
But part of it is under our own control as well. My mother had the juice, even when she was going blind and confined to her condo in her late eighties. She was a devoted worker of crossword puzzles and an avid reader. We bought her puzzles and books in large type, and one of those reading lamps that magnifies text. She was up on the news of the day, always had an opinion to share, and was a congenial conversationalist right up to the end. But she worked at it. She tried one of those assistive living facilities and couldn’t stand it, especially time spent with other residents who she described as being “extremely dull.” She preferred the company of noted authors, and her children and grandchildren, so long as they didn’t stay too long.
Then there are those who spend as much time as possible outdoors, walking or hiking, working in the yard and such. Others pursue the arts, socialize with friends, travel or take up a hobby. There are many ways to nurture the juice, but they all require effort. Watching TV and complaining about your lot in life probably won’t cut it.
I used to deliver Meals on Wheels back in Iowa. One of my stops was a tiny, elderly woman who must have been in her nineties and was totally blind. She lived alone in a small gingerbread-like house, and her daughter dropped in once or twice a day to look after her. When I came by with a hot lunch, she was sitting expectantly on the couch in the living room and wearing a light blue dress with the collar primly buttoned at the top. I would knock, and she would call out in a light voice for me to come in and put the meal on the kitchen table, where she would eat it later.
Then she always asked me the same thing. “Do you have time to visit?”
I had to say no, because other people on my route were waiting for their meals. But she always asked in the same way, and one Saturday I found myself saying sure, I have some time, and sat down on the couch next to her. She proceeded to asked me all sorts of questions about myself, my family and my work. She told me how she had lived in the same house since 1930, how her husband had been killed in World War II, and how she had raised three daughters while working at a button and then a furniture factory.
“I can’t complain,” she said, and smiled up at me. “I’ve had a good life.”
The moment left an indelible impression. It made me realize that the juice – the zest and love of life – is a gift. Whether it comes easily or out of struggle and effort, one must be open to receive it.
Every time I get caught up in my own head and worries, I think of that small, blind woman and the radiance around her, and it puts me in a receiving place.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.