Some days I lie in my hammock listening to the grass grow or watching the trees leaf out or the flowers bloom. Birds call and insects scratch on the bark of red pines, and in the cerulean sky above there are no airplanes or helicopters, only puffy, drifting clouds shaped like rabbits and bears and medieval castles, and far, far off, from ocean to ocean, a colorful freed balloon sails on. Until tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
Joe Callahan, who retired eight years earlier than I, when asked what he did all day, replied, “I don’t know exactly what I do, but it takes me all day to do it.” Joe was at Cassino during World War II, one of the older riflemen with the 34th Division.
Bill Jackson, seeing me at the supermarket one morning, said I was doing it all wrong. “If you have a lot to buy, divide it up. Go to the store two, maybe three times. It breaks up the day. Maybe a different store. Out of the neighborhood. You’re missing opportunities.” Bill flew bombers north from Italy into Germany.
On the occasion of the “surprise” 80th birthday party my wife hosted for me recently, I was the oldest person in the houseful of some 30 friends, and I yearned to be younger than someone.
An inveterate historian, my mother reckoned that she was nothing if not exact. When her sister-in-law visited us soon after Uncle Fred died, I remarked that Aunt Margaret looked pretty good for 64. “She’s not 64,” my mother said. “She looks good because she’s 54. I ought to know. She’s my sister-in-law.”
Mother kept the dates of all aunts and uncles and cousins as far back as the 13th century, with some major lapses during the Renaissance, purposely eliminating only those who had been divorced.
On the distaff side, her grandmother, Victoria, was a remnant of the Walker family in the Scottish Clan Stewart of Appin, who fought at the Battle of Sterling Bridge in 1297. The clan’s war cry was “Creag ab Sgairbh!” and their main occupation seemed to be fighting. There were chiefs and knights, lords and earls, intrigues, murders and hangings. Notably, in 1565, the fourth Earl of Lenox secured the marriage of his son, Lord Darnley, to the widowed Mary Queen of Scots, who was Darnley’s cousin. Darnley later was killed under suspicious circumstances that involved his queen, and 20 years after that Mary herself was executed by her cousin, Elizabeth I of England.
Mother’s 17th and 18th century Gallic ancestors, who had begun emigrating to Canada in the 1600s, settled in Sandwich and Windsor, Ontario, and later, crossing the boundary river, in Detroit. Her forebears were carpenter, toolsmith, gunsmith, stone mason, baker, shoemaker, trader, as well as soldiers under Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac, founder of Pontchartrain d’Etroit in 1701. They died from smallpox, cholera, drowning, lightning and other disasters.
My mother’s great-grandfather, born in 1802, was Vital Ouellette, who gave his name to Windsor’s main street. His daughter Arthemise married Noe Langlois in 1851, and their son Albemi, my mother’s father, wed Clara Montreuil, the daughter of French Henry and Scottish Victoria. The French, by then, dominated all relationships.
Unlike the French, the Irish apparently were not hung up on genealogy. My father’s fraternal grandmother is recorded only as “Bridget,” born in Ireland, 1818. A note found in family papers states that she and her husband, Maurice, “might be parents of five Lynch boys” who emigrated from Ireland in the 19th century. Of my father’s mother’s parents there is no printed record at all. But the name was Ryan. His father, born in 1840, had come in his 20s, illiterate, from Ballybunnion on the River Shannon. Lured by free food and tobacco, he was taken aboard a train destined for a Union Army camp. He may have been illiterate, but he was prescient enough to jump the train at Utica, New York, where he rented himself out as a farm hand, and in his 40s bought his own farm at Newport. He was bald at an early age and thin as a scarecrow but had magnificent muttonchops, and toward the end of his life he wore a patriarchal white beard falling to his waist.
If there was one thing that conjoined these different lives it was the thread of Catholicism. I doubt that the news of Benedict XIII rising to pope in 1724 penetrated to Sandwich or that the death of Pio Nono in 1878 was the talk of Newport, for it was not until the 20th century that local active family piety was put into practice. Monsignor Langlois was a pastor in Sandwich and would cross the Detroit River to visit us. Sister Rosalie was mother superior of a convent in Windsor. A generation apart, my cousin “Bud” was a Dominican priest. My brother Dan was a teaching brother in the Congregation of Holy Cross. But I, for whatever reason, never even served Mass until I was in the Army and attended the Sunday liturgy at a chapel in Tryon, North Carolina, maintained by the monks of Belmont Abbey. I never served Mass again.
We were stout Catholics and seriously wary of non-Catholics, though Jews and Protestants were our close neighbors. We were taught by nuns in grade school. “On your muscle, on your muscle” was how we wrote in the Palmer Method way, and every Friday we (some of whom were still wetting their pants in school) marched two-by-two to confession, whether we had anything to say or not. Priest-author Leo Trese was one of our early assistant pastors. From about age 9 or 10 I thought I was going to hell. How could I avoid it? Even when I was beginning to guide my own children, a moralist from Notre Dame cautioned: “God is just, but there is no obligation for him to be merciful, and he is not foolish.” That scared me then, and it still scares me, and I am 80.
Death is sneaky. As a boy, every night—_any night—_it might have come crawling into my bedroom. Cars passing by would throw lights upon the ceiling, seeking me out, streaking into corners, then escaping again out the windows. “Now I lay me down to sleep, and pray the Lord my soul to keep. . . .”
(In my sophomore year at Notre Dame’s Badin Hall, it was not death that sneaked around, but “The Mouse,” Father Tom McAvoy. Near 9 o’clock, while I was studying, the doorknob would begin to turn soundlessly, the door would slowly open and there would be The Mouse. “Just checking,” he would say remotely, and amble on in his slippers to the next room.)
In high school, as a staff member of the school paper, I was sent to the chancery to interview the bishop at the beginning of our senior year. I was so frightened I couldn’t utter a word, much less frame a useful question. I had never talked to a bishop before, except to give a nervous answer at confirmation, and the next time I did I was an adult. Our pastor was a troubled and troubling man. Among other things, he resolutely fought the idea of a parish council. I was recently arrived in Massachusetts from Indiana and was dubbed a “buttinsky” and an “itinerant Midwesterner” for my efforts, but nevertheless I rallied a few suburban Yankees and, with the aid of assistant pastor Dan Quinn, we put together an illegal and miscreant council. Since I was in disfavor already, I was named the first president.
The council was finally banished, but, warned by Dan, I quit before I was fired. A young cleric in an adjoining parish suggested that I could pray for the pastor’s happy death. “Can I do that?” I asked, as sudden bells began to ring. “A happy death,” he repeated. So I went to see an auxiliary bishop in Cambridge, and the pastor soon was being decommissioned.
I began growing old, I suppose, sometime in my 50s, in time to sign up with AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) in anticipation of their health insurance program, a supplement to Medicare. They have been good to me, although prescription prices occasionally drift upward. For hospital care they do fine. I can’t complain, and as a sometime freelance photographer, I have sold AARP several color covers for their member magazine, Modern Maturity.
But Medicare has some problems, the most notorious for us being their decision to cancel for nine months my wife’s policy because they had “determined” she was a man masquerading as a woman, living with me in an illicit relationship and drawing benefits from both Medicare and the company where I had not worked in seven years and she had never worked. Medicare stopped the nonsense when she had her next mammogram, paid up her past-due doctors’ bills, but never made an apology. They might at least have sent her roses.
I was 38 when we moved to Massachusetts. The weather in Indiana had become intolerable, and I had been fired from one job and was desperate to leave another when I was offered work in Framingham. That lasted 27 years and provided me with a sensible pension when I retired at 64 in 1986. My legs started to go first. Golf, the retiree’s game, I couldn’t have played if I wanted to, as locomotion was not one of my better physical assets. I took to gardening, am still at it, although slowed down a great deal, and have nurtured several plants which are now on the horticultural market. Six of our children, those of age and intent, have moved on, marrying along the way, and then moved again, to California, Washington state, Texas, Vermont, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Virginia, and, in several further moves, back to Massachusetts.
My parents died in their 80s. My brother, a year older than I, is already gone at 76. My sisters are in their 70s. I will shortly be a great-grandfather. I have been shot by a German gunner (he broke my leg), had a major stroke, a silent heart attack, a slipped disc, arthritis, cataracts, foundered in depression. I have been probed, injected, scanned, monitored, X-rayed, MRIed (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) from head to foot, yet I have never suffered the replacement of any major parts. But consider still from my medical appraisals: the “decreased signal in periventricular white matter,” the “Schmotl’s node at the inferior endplate of L1,” the “possible crossed aphasia” and the “significant left upgoing toe!”
When something quirky suddenly happens, I ask, “Is this the onset of Alzheimer’s?” I fear for my family, and I fear for myself. I fear being disabled. I fear being bloody, being hurt. I have a son with Down’s Syndrome and a daughter with multiple sclerosis.
Reassuringly and easily I live in the past. I can remember events that happened when I was 4 years old. War memories are minutely recalled. I remember catching a 3-foot northern pike in an Oakland County lake, then losing him when he broke the line. I could count the number of turtles of six different species that my brother and I caught in an afternoon and released. I can walk into a forest and name every tree, except for an uncommon few. If the hickories and ashes are mature, I can name them; the seedlings are difficult. (A shagbark hickory isn’t shaggy until it has a diameter of 6 or 7 inches.) I am thrilled when my daughter calls from Seattle for help identifying a snake in her backyard. “I don’t think it’s indigenous,” she remarks, and I know she’s laughing.
But gone is the image of worlds beyond. I have pulled back, knowing the clock is ticking. I’ll hear a song and not remember that I had once sung it. I recognize trivia only at my wife’s prodding, and often faces on the TV screen are strangers.
It has been 12 years since I have been to a ball game in Fenway Park. I do not go to movies. Fifteen years ago I gave up on airplanes. That may have been a mistake, but I was in some close calls in a company plane, and a Mitsubishi climbing through clouds in West Virginia mountains and a Piper searching for a landing spot in forested Alberta was enough to satisfy me. Last year when we took Amtrak from Boston to Newport News, Virginia, (13 hours including a smokers’ stop!) I enjoyed the paulownia trees below Washington, D.C., but little else. Backyards and industrial sites along railroad tracks are mostly messy and obscene.
Loblolly pines well over 100 feet tall grow in my son’s Virginian Beach yard. I had never seen them before and he didn’t know their name at first. But when I asked a neighbor, he said with a drawl, “We call ’em Tawl Pines.” Well, that made sense.
And gone are the habits of faith. When did I last attend a “retreat”? We don’t even say grace with meals anymore. But night prayers, yes. My parents used to pray the rosary every night. Who does that? My father’s rosary, removed from his casket, has become an item in a shadow box that hangs on a wall in Louisville, viewed but not prayed. What is a novena? On Holy Thursday we visited after supper the various churches and the convents, where Sisters of the Poor were heard chanting in the darkness. We observed the three hours remembrance on Good Friday. It was said that a Detroit pastor had inaugurated the practice, and we would vie to see who could pass out the most window-cards to local merchants who would agree to close for the three hours.
When I was a child, we lived nine blocks north of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis in central Detroit. My Uncle Lou had grown up in a house next door to Henry Ford and was a mentor to Edsel. In Rome I shook hands with Pius XII. I met Dorothy Day and knew Flannery O’Connor. I studied with Wallace Stegner at Stanford. I knew teacher-astronaut Christa Corrigan McAuliffe as a teen in our parish. Serving as a Scoutmaster, I had her two brothers in Troop 43. We knew two people from Framingham who died on Flight 11 at the World Trade Center in New York and one who was crushed on the ground by falling debris.
Two weeks before my last birthday I renewed my driver’s license for five years. In less than a year I expect I will retire it. When I was 65 I reasoned that no one should be allowed to drive beyond 70 years of age. When that time came, I hedged that it could still be safe to drive at 75, but not beyond 80. Now I have run out of time. Two years ago I had a seizure while driving at night on the wrong side of the road with my lights turned off. Just this year I drove blindly into a curb and broke a tire. Time to go! Incidentally, as an indication of the mixed-up times in which we live and die, the Massachusetts driver’s renewal form includes the statistical fill-in line (and I quote): “SEX—additional documentation may be required.”
I like poets, artists, old soldiers, botanists, Gloucester fisherman, firemen, eternally John XXIII, Richard Sullivan and Frank O’Malley RIP, Father Hesburgh, Lou Holtz, Andy Rooney, Andrea Bocelli, and don’t care much for bankers, brokers, insurance salesmen, drug dealers, pornographers, gamblers and heavy drinkers, not necessarily in that order. In this new era, CEOs can be cheats and liars, priests can be predators, bishops can be knuckleheads.
At the Mobil station one day I was wearing my ND cap with visor forward, out of current style. The attendant, who looked about 23, was wearing a Notre Dame sweatshirt.
“Did you go to Notre Dame?” I asked.
“No. I bought it at Sears. Did you?”
“Sure,” I said, thinking that would be the end of the conversation.
As he placed the change in my hand, he glowed. “Did you know ‘the Gipper’?”
“As a matter of fact, no. He was a lot younger than I,” and I pocketed the change as I turned and walked out.
Joe Callahan said, “You were away. We buried Donald last week. Alzheimer’s. Damn it! He screwed up until the very last. McCarthy had two funerals that day, and when we got to the cemetery Donna said to her aunt, ‘This isn’t where mother is buried.’ Sure enough, a stranger was already in Donald’s grave. So the burial was delayed until the bodies were transferred. Nice people, the Walshes. Never met them before.”
Funny things happen on the way to growing old. The four times I have torn my left rotator cuff and the dual times my right. I fall down flat, and the neurologist says the process of dropping isn’t being carried from my feet to my brain in time to save myself. I am down before I realize it, but when I try to recover I throw out my arms and “pop” goes one cuff or the other. An occasional cortisone shot for pain does wonders, however. One day after having an MRI to see if there was any progress at all, I left the clinic and immediately fell down the steps. A neurosurgeon is weighing the risk of opening up my back.
A brouhaha ensued when I backed into a postal van that the driver had parked across my driveway. I was billed $845 for a dent in the door. The bill bore the number of another van that had been hit more sharply, and no one at the P.O. understood how the switch had happened. The postmaster and his crew get credit for attempted fraud, but I never heard from them again.
When my bank was bought out by another, one of the incentives to stay on board was “free checks.” When I ordered my new checks, however, I was charged for them. A bank representative said I hadn’t used the “secret word.” He leaned forward and whispered, “Greystone. It’s the president’s wife’s maiden name,” and chuckled.
“I didn’t know there was a secret word.”
“You should have asked. Do it next time. Now you’re out 22 dollars, like _Catch 22.”_ He hesitated. “Were you in the war? Sad.”
I should have socked him, but I was saving it for another day. I picked up my cane and left.
And so to bed. Levoxyl 0.1mg, Flomax 0.4 mg, Lipitor 10 mg, Atenolol 25 mg, Zoloft 50 mg, half of a 75 mg Plavix, remove the plastic ankle cast, take out the hearing aids, off with the nitroglycerin patch, in with the eye drops, a Tums for good measure, “. . . and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
John Lynch is retired and writes occasionally for Commonweal and this magazine.