Mustering courage can be challenging. Aging presents unique threats to inner peace and stability.
When I was a young lad, courage seemed to be an obvious, straight-line thing. Three weeks after starting college I flunked my first chemistry test. I decided then and there I’d better reach deep inside to see if I was made of the right stuff to become a pharmacist. I found I am. The rest is merely filling in my biography up to today.
Bill, a good friend from those days captained the football team, married his college sweetheart, and also went to med school. Sixty years later his wife developed Alzheimer’s disease. After she assaulted him and others, she was placed in a care facility and died several months later. Nine months after she died, Bill’s family was doting on him. He didn’t really know what he was going to do. She had been his first and only love. His personal re-invention had barely started, if at all.
I’ve written about Ray before. His wife died of cancer before they’d established the kind of retirement life they’d envisioned. He downsized into a condo and lived well until he developed a slowly progressive, fatal disease. Despite vibes and advice from friends and family, he was determined to die at home if possible.
After his condition deteriorated and he was on oxygen 24/7, he paid for home care for most of the day. That worked quite well, then one day near the end he decided to go downstairs to his printer one last time. His aide couldn’t handle the trip with him alone. They got stuck half way and couldn’t go either back up or down the stairs. He called me for help.
Another time he slid to the floor on his way back from the bathroom and called 911 at 4 a.m. for help getting back in bed.
He died peacefully at home with his children by his side. I was fortunate to be able to spend several hours with them all shortly before he died.
Mary is considerably younger than Bill and Ray. She married shortly after graduating from college. Her husband had a 10-year history of cancer that had been reasonably well controlled, with some drastic treatments. They thought things were on a stable course, then he died suddenly and catastrophically hours after returning home from a family outing. Two children live in the U.S. and two others and a small grandchild live overseas.
To me, Nan and Ed are a profile in courage, except he wouldn’t recognize it. He’s 83 now. Among the things he remembers for sure include that he set a high school record scoring 44 points in a basketball game in 1950, he’s a retired engineering professor, and he likes to play his horn in the band. He stopped driving not long ago after he dropped Nan off at the door of a funeral home for a service, got lost on his way to the parking lot, and they had to call the police to find him miles away.
Nan has MS, slowly gets around using a walker and is the faithful and sometimes overwhelmed music librarian for the New Horizons Band. I don’t know what she’d say if I asked her about courage. It might be something like what else would she do to get out and be with people?
Ben and his wife live in a retirement complex. She was the primary breadwinner as a conscientious, successful businesswoman and pillar of the community. She literally couldn’t say no. For decades he occasionally helped out with the business and did some volunteer work. But his primary career was taking care of the home and children and being the go-to person for groups of friends and visiting out-of-town family. It was more than a full time job.
Complaining of always feeling tired, he began slowing down years ago. Medical tests, visits to multiple specialists and a world-renown medical clinic failed to find any medically treatable condition or explanation for his feeling chronically tired. For the last few years his life has been progressively more circumscribed by meals, rests (usually in bed), short walks with a walker with a built in seat and attending occasional entertainment programs. From a distance, it looks like he’s unfortunately running out of steam before running out of life.
Courage is observable but not measurable. Observing others and thinking about courage while I’m still upright, running around loose and having a pretty good time, I wonder about what tomorrow will bring. What kinds of courage will I need? Will I still have it deep inside?