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Aging with Humor, Grace and a Few Slip-Ups Along the Way: Life Lessons I Learned from My Father

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Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have not only my mother around the house full time, but also my father for a majority of my youth.  My dad had a second chance at marriage and married my mom when she was 30 and he was 43.  Needless to say, I feel lucky to be here since I was born when he was 45 and my brother was born when he was 48. 

When I was younger, having a more “mature” father came with its fair share of teasing and jokes in school.  When everyone else’s parents looked like they were right out of college, I got teased for having a dad that already had gray hair and glasses.  One Halloween, my classmate from elementary school went trick or treating and happened to stop at my parents’ house.  My dad opened the door and she said, “Are you Sarah’s Dad?” which he replied, “Yes, I am.”  Her response? “Boy, you’re old!”

Despite the teasing and jokes, I felt very lucky and fortunate to have my dad around almost full time during my childhood, as I knew that wasn’t the norm.  He retired when I was still going to school and was able to be in the stands cheering me on for swim meets and ballet performances, and he started the first women’s water polo team at my high school through all of his hard work at fundraising.

Growing up, I liked to think that my younger brother and I kept my dad on his toes and taught him a thing or two about life and being young.  Looking back, I realize it was my dad who taught me the greatest lessons.  Through his humor, grace and slip ups along the way, he taught me the life skills, lessons and values that I will hold with me the rest of my life (and all this time he thought I wasn’t listening). 

Now, as he approaches his 78th birthday in one week, I can look back on the past 32 years with him and reflect on his mistakes, wisdom, and humor that touched me and our family and made for many a funny story.   He is now only 2 years away from turning 80 (which he does not wish to acknowledge), but his energy and zest for life that he continues to have sometimes leaves me baffled.  How does my 78 year old father have more pep and energy than I do?   It is the experiences and lessons below that have helped shape him throughout his life and now help him to age gracefully with wit and humor in his older years.

  • Full platter.  This doesn’t refer to a full plate of food, like most people would assume, but a busy schedule.  My dad has his own lingo and he often talks about having a “full platter,” also known as a busy schedule.  He stays active and engaged with yard work, painting, walking in the park, barbecuing, joking around with my mom, house projects and yard work, and entertaining family and friends.  He almost gives my mom a heart attack when she comes home and finds him up in the tree with a chainsaw trying to cut down the tree branches.  He refuses to stay put and he says this keeps him young at heart.
  • Want versus need.  I heard this line constantly from my dad growing up and still do to this day, especially when it involves buying something.  He often reminds me to really think about if the item is something I really need, or just something that will make me happy for ten minutes before I’m on to wanting the next hot item.  He always encouraged me to “sleep on it.” When I was I was younger and on my own for the first time, I of course, “needed” everything.  If my parents hadn’t heard from me in a couple days and I didn’t answer my phone, my dad would call my bank to see if I had made any ATM transactions and because of my constant and continuous transactions, he knew I was okay.  Now, after finally taking my dad’s advice, I find myself pausing more and realizing the material objects don’t make me happy in the long run, it’s the people I surround myself with and the love, laughter and experiences we share together.  At 78, that is what my dad treasures now more than any material objects, although, to be honest, I still don’t think he would turn away a new car! 
  • Life will throw you in reverse.  There are times in life where things align for you and everything seems to fall into place.  You are moving forward in life, happy and content with where you are. All of a sudden, life throws you a few road blocks and you feel like you’ve been thrown into reverse.  My dad has taught me it’s not only how you handle the good times in life, but how you handle the moments in “reverse.”  For my dad, this isn’t just a metaphor, it takes on literal meaning.  Everyone one of his car mishaps has literally been in reverse.  We’re lucky if he makes it out of the garage without knocking off the side passenger door (been done), or the driver’s side mirror (been done).  You wouldn’t want to leave out the time he backed into a pole, or the time he backed into a tree (don’t know how you can't miss a tree).  Needless to say, he can easily get distracted!  His most recent escapade was explaining the backup warning alarm that rings in the car when you’re almost going to hit an object behind the car.  He was trying to demonstrate this to his neighbor, who does not hear well.  The neighbor couldn’t hear the alarm ringing in the car, so my dad kept backing up in hopes that the neighbor could hear it.  The neighbor could finally hear the alarm after my dad backed into his neighbor’s garage door.  Sometimes those moments in “reverse” aren’t always easy to handle and they can throw you off course and put you on a different path.  But, often times they can teach you a valuable lesson and make you stronger, and make for a good story down the road. 
  • One door might close, but keep on knocking.   If there is one thing my dad is, it’s persistent.  After a long career of “knocking on doors” in sales and marketing, he carries this with him to this day.  He has taught me that if one door closes, you move on to the next door and keep on knocking.  He always said you may get a lot of “no’s” or rejections in life, but you keep on going because you will finally get a "yes" at some point.  
  • Keep the sparks.  He refuses to stop learning and growing, just because of his age, or his troublesome eyes.  He is constantly reading the newspaper, books, or the latest breaking news online.  He refuses to let the “spark” dim.   On a recent trip to the bank to handle an issue, when he was all done, the teller sent him on his way with, “Well, it looks like you’re all set Sparky.  Anything else I can help you with?”  His name is Jim, not Sparky.  He came home and said, “Well, I guess I’m Sparky now.  I didn’t realize I had reached that age where I’m called Sparky.” 
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff.  At 78, my dad has learned to pick his battles and is getting better at learning when to let things go (except if it involves who gets the last piece of cake).  What’s important to someone changes with age and at different times in life, but it’s knowing when to hold on, or when it’s better to let go, that can make the difference (and sometimes this is easier said than done).  For example, my dad is very picky about where he parks his car and he is always inspecting it, to make sure no one dinged his doors.  One time, he came out from a store, approached the car and got down on his hands and knees because he noticed a new dent on the door.  As he was down on the ground inspecting it, a woman approaches him and says, “What are you doing?”  to which he replied, “I’ll tell you what I’m doing, I’m inspecting the dent you put in my car.”  “That’s MY car!” the woman said.  True story. 
  • Hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst.  My dad hopes for the best in life and has a positive disposition and a good sense of humor, but he is definitely prepared to face the worst.  Name any item or situation and he can almost immediately think of a safety hazard for it.  Now, without realizing it, I find myself unconsciously doing the same thing at times and it drives me crazy!  It just goes to show you have to try to look on the bright side and remain positive, but be prepared for some storms along the way and how you’re going to handle them.  It never hurts to be prepared and have a backup plan. 
  • Humor, life’s free medicine.  Despite all the ups and downs, challenges, and detours my dad has had in his life, the one thing he has always kept is his sense of humor.   That is one of the things he credits to helping him through all of life’s moments, and now it helps him in his “senior” years.  He loves to make people laugh, usually with his own stories about his latest escapade or slip up, and he is always up for a good joke.  He likes it even more, because it doesn’t cost a thing! 

There is one other important person I must mention who keeps my dad young at heart, keeps him on his toes, and has taught him a lesson or two on patience, love and family.  That is my mom.  For behind every man, there is a great woman.