I felt my fists curl into a ball as I prepared to cold-cock my father’s caregiver across the face. “What do you mean he’s an old man?” I hissed.
She took my hand and smiled. “Jackie, your dad is 94. He is old.”
Stepping back, I re-evaluated the situation. He was incapable of caring for his basic daily needs. Debilitated by a stroke he had suffered 26 years before, he no longer had the use of his legs and left arm. The aging process had naturally softened his hearing, and his eyesight was rapidly fading. On his head, a crown of snow-white hair gleamed in the sunshine as deep winkles zigzagged from his brow down his entire body. So I suppose anyone might question how I could be insulted hearing someone call him “old.” But this is not the way I see the first man I ever loved.
John Madden is a member of the Greatest Generation that ever lived. As a young boy, he helped his poverty-stricken family survive the Great Depression by bringing home whatever pennies he could from odd jobs. He went on to spend four years serving our country as a Lieutenant in the Navy during World War II and remained in the reserves for twenty-five years after the war as a Captain. Though his most profound call to duty was as a parent to his four children.
While he rarely had time to play, his impact on my life was and continues to be immense. For the past 57 years, he has loved me unconditionally, even though I can be as big a pain now as I was in my teenage years. He has been my mentor, my cheerleader, my spiritual counsel and my friend. My dad taught me the value of education, the value of having an open mind and, most importantly, how to live a life of faith.
A devout Catholic, he believed all men and women were to be honored, no matter what color or creed. He trusted that good would always prevail and that there was a reason behind all of life’s hardships. Above all, he knew that no matter how difficult or painful things became, our Heavenly Father would never abandon him.
My father has been my pillar of strength, my go-to guy whenever I’ve felt suffering. As he graciously and cheerfully maneuvers through life in his wheelchair, I’m reminded of what true integrity and dignity looks like. Of course, I took umbrage hearing this woman call him an old man! This was no old man. He was the greatest thing since sliced bread, TiVo, smartphones, and even my curling iron.
As I prepared to leave for home that night, I stood in his doorway and for a brief second found myself saddened. I watched him sleep peacefully in the hospital-issued bed, his knotted, arthritic fingers clutching his rosary, and I had to admit it might be true. Physically, he was a shell of the strong and vibrant man I knew as a child. But deep inside the “old” casing beat the heart of an extraordinary human being.
Sure, some may call him old, but for me, he will always be the handsome devil who’d pick me up to dance me around the living room; the tutor who came in at night to help me with my math; and the gentle soul that ended each conversation with, “honey, you’ll be just fine.” The most amazing creature God ever created.
Now that I’m in full swing of my mid-life, I look in the mirror and see that my face is rapidly changing. One day, I’m sure I’ll be called “that old woman,” but if we search into our hearts, we will find our inner child to keep us young. Mine is feeling the dirt sift through my fingers as I plant my spring flowers. It travels me back in time to a place where my dad and I tended to our yard, and he lovingly placed worms into my chubby hands. Do you have any suggestions on how to stay young in your mind? I think it would be fun to create a list of them for future reference.