My Old Man

In all the sixty years I knew him before he died, I never referred to my father as the old man.  Despite being acceptable in many households, that phrase always seemed a tad disrespectful to me.  And besides, my mother forbade me.

When I spoke directly with him, I called him Dad.  When referring to him in conversation, he was my father, or my dad.  He was never my old man.

I had no problem with others who used the phrase, though.  My friends always seemed to have a loving relationship with their fathers, regardless of how they referred to them.

But there was no denying one fact; during the last decade of his life, which ended in his 92nd year, my dad definitely became an old man—a state of being I am now coming to understand.

old man

We were different, he and I, in so many ways—temperamentally, emotionally, and physically.  From my perspective, he seemed a placid soul, tending to take life as it came (although often expressing frustration when it wasn’t to his liking).

I knew he loved me, but he wasn’t one to say, “I love you,”; in fact, when I would say that to him, his usual response was, “Thank you.”  Genuinely pleased to be loved, but unsure as to how to express it to his son.

He was a bigger man than I, and stronger, although he was not particularly active in his later years, save for a daily walk.  As I grew up in the family home, I never got big enough to wear his clothes or his shoes (although, given our discrepant styles, I probably wouldn’t have, anyway).  When I inherited his cherished Omega wristwatch, I had to have three links removed from the bracelet in order to wear it.

As a child, I think I mostly took him for granted.  He was always there, he was dependable, he was predictable—a benign, constant presence in our household.  Not until after I had become a father myself, dealing with adolescent children, did I begin to think more about our relationship.  Not until then did I begin to reflect more on our similarities, rather than our differences.

By then, he was in his seventies, the decade I now inhabit.  His hair was thinning and graying, his gait was slowing; and I’d often see him lost in apparent reverie, a thousand-yard stare in his vivid blue eyes.  I used to wonder what he was thinking about, but I never asked.  I wish now I had.

He’s been gone for fourteen years almost, and I still see him in my mind’s eye—but always as an old man.  For images of his younger self, I have to look at family albums, where I am always struck by how youthful he was.  I just don’t remember him like that.

Billy-Boo at 32 2

The clearest memories I have, however, are counterfeit, in the sense that they are channeled through me.  For example, I used to notice how graceless he looked when he bent over to pick his newspaper off the floor—bowed legs canted outward, fanny pointed skyward, gnarled hand struggling to reach low enough.

“Bend your knees!” I’d silently tell him.

At my age now, of course, I realize bending one’s knees can be quite a problem if one expects to rise again.  So, I bend from the waist, too—bowed legs canted outward, fanny pointed skyward, gnarled hand struggling to reach the floor.  And alas, I see my father in my ungainly pose.

He used to sneeze—not demurely, but prodigiously.  A-roo-pha-a-!  A-roo-pha-a!  we might hear.  Or A-ree-cha-a-a!  A-ree-cha-a-a!  Sometimes A-chintz-ish!  A-chintz-ish!  There seemed no end to the variety of forms his sneezes could take.  But always, they were six times repeated before he seemed able to stop.  I think we first learned to count by marking my father’s sneezes.

“C’mon, Dad,” I used to say to myself.  “That’s not necessary.”

Now I sneeze, too—not decorously, but colossally.  They come upon me at the most inopportune times, and I’m unable to control them. A-roo-pha-a-a!  A-ree-cha-a-a!  A-chintz-ish!   And to my chagrin, I hear my dad all over again.

I had my childhood heroes as a boy, but my father wasn’t one of them.  Not then.  He was too old, too square, too conservative.  And sometimes (to my shame now), too embarrassing.  But in adulthood, I came to appreciate that his stolid, almost-Victorian demeanour was comforting, that his sly sense of humour was refreshing, that his love for his family was unending.

As my daughters grew up, they called him Grandpa, or more often Gramps.  They didn’t think he was square; they thought he was cool.  Now that I’m Gramps to my own grandchildren, basking in their attentions, I’ve come to appreciate how much my kids’ love must have meant to him.  Which makes me very happy that I appear to have, at long last, become my dad.

As another Fathers’ Day approaches, I give thanks for one of my heroes, that old man who was my father.

man-and-boy-1840034_960_720

 

 

 

 

 

The Better I Was

At threescore-and-ten years of age, plus a few, I am no longer cavorting on ice-rinks and athletic fields-of-play with the same wild abandon that characterized my youth.  Not even close.

My ice-hockey skates have lain, undisturbed for lo, these many years, in a box in my storage locker.  My inline skates were recently given to my grandson, whose feet, amazingly, have grown to my size.  And my baseball gloves (the ‘relic’—floppy, scuffed, and worn; and the ‘newbie’—still-shiny, with a lovely, leathery smell) lie beside each other on a shelf I never look at.

My competitive pursuits these days consist of golf (from the forward tees), tennis (‘doubles’ only), and snooker (on tables with oversized pockets).  My comrades and I—no longer so quick, strong, and skilled as once upon a time—are unhurried, more frail, and prone to error now.  And that’s on our good days!

snooker

I’m sure the same refrain runs through their minds, as through mine: O, how the mighty have fallen!

Not that I was ever that mighty, mind you.  The visions of grace and glory ever running through my youthful head were more likely delusions of grandeur.  And the triumphs I always looked forward to were more often trials and errors.

It might have been said about me at various times over the years (snidely, of course, by persons with varying degrees of sensitivity) —

  • He’s a legend…..in his own mind.
  • He’s not as good as he once was; but he might be as good once as he ever was.
  • He’s not a has-been; he’s a never-was!

However, the one I deem most accurate, given my propensity for self-aggrandizement, is probably—

  • The older he gets, the better he was!

That one comes closest to the truth.  When I absolutely ‘crush’ a drive off the tee now (which is rare, and which means about 150 yards), I bemoan the fact that I used to regularly hit it almost twice as far.  Not true.

golf

When I double-fault into the net at a crucial point in the match (which is not-so-rare), I protest that I used to reliably smash aces past my opponents.  Also not true.

And when the cue ball ricochets off the ball I intended to sink, and itself literally leaps into the pocket (which is often), I smack my forehead and exclaim, “What a fluke!  I used to make those shots all the time!”  But I didn’t.

It strikes me that the phrase ‘I used to…’ is a prominent part of my conversation these days.

I suppose it’s a form of self-defence to claim a level of excellence that never truly existed, an attempt to ward off the all-too-obvious failings of the flesh brought on by rapidly-advancing years.  Even more fragile than my aging body, after all, is my vaunted male ego.  Yet sadly, the first gives out before the second.

I recall a computer-translation into Russian of the old saying, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  When a Russian-speaking person was asked to re-translate it to English, it came out as, “The wine is good, but the meat is rotten.”

Exactly how I feel!

wine2

Still, I continue to declaim the glories of my yesteryears to all who will listen (the number of whom is fewer and fewer all the time, I am noticing).  I am out there whenever I can be—on the golf course, at the tennis court, around the snooker table—rarely winning at the games, but always seeking the former stardom I pretend to remember.

“The important thing is not who wins,” I try to tell myself.  “It’s who shows up to play.”

And strangely, the showing up is somehow made easier by a still-burning desire to do better next time, to improve, to regain the degree of mastery (illusory, I know) once taken for granted.

After all, the older I get, the better I…..well, you know.

Weighed and Measured

I was weighed the other day, and measured.  And to my great surprise, I was found wanting.

There I stood, like a lamb for the slaughter—clad in undergarments and socks, a paper gown hanging ignominiously from my slumping shoulders—facing the long arm of the weigh scale, its pendulous weights being moved unrelentingly to the right by an unsympathetic nurse.

weighed2

Another arm, this one perpendicular to the weigh bar, lay atop my head.

“No tiptoes!” the nurse said.  “Heels down.”

So I raised my chin as high as I dared, and stretched my torso skyward, straining for every fraction of height.  I’m sure I heard my spine decompressing…ouch!

I sucked my stomach in when she wrapped a tape around my waist, and held my breath as the gown crinkled against me.  I swear she took her time to read it, waiting to see if I’d have to let go.  Mercifully, she released me before I expired.

All my efforts were to no avail, however.  The results spoke for themselves.  Well, actually, I had to ask for them.

“Okay, step down,” the nurse said.  “Sit up on the bed, the doctor will be in shortly.”

“What was I?” I asked, clambering up as directed, pressing the gown between my legs to keep from exposing my nether regions.  As if the nurse cared.  At my age, I’m not even sure why I did.

“Weight, seventy-nine kilos,” she said, placing the clipboard with my chart on a small table by the bed.  “Height, a hundred and seventy-three point seven centimetres.  Waist, ninety-one point four centimetres.”

“What’s that in pounds and inches?” I asked to her departing back.

“Don’t know,” she said.  “Don’t use those anymore.”

The doctor didn’t know, either, although she was much more forthcoming than the nurse.  “You’re a little above weight for your age,” she said, “and a tad too short for your weight.  But it’s the BMI we’re concerned with.”

“BMI?”

“Body-Mass Index.  It’s a measure of body fat, based on weight and height.  Ideally, you should fall somewhere between eighteen and twenty-five.”  She was busy typing who-knows-what into the computer on the table, its screen angled away from me.

“So what am I?” I asked.

“Let’s see,” she said.  “Hmm, slightly overweight.  Twenty-six point eight.  Nothing to worry about, but it would be good to get it inside the normal range.”

“I’m not fat!” I protested.  “I still wear the pants I wore ten years ago.  Thirty-four-inch waist.”

She looked at me—not unkindly, but quizzically—perhaps wondering why anyone would still be wearing clothes from a decade ago.  “You can’t go by the sizes on your clothing,” she said.  “The manufacturers fudge the numbers somewhat, likely to make us all feel better.”

“Really?” I said.  That was news to me, discouraging news, until I realized that, no matter the number, my old pants still fit.  “Okay, but they’re the same size they were…well, whenever I bought them.  I can still get into them.”  Even I could hear the tinge of desperation in my voice.

“I’m sure they do,” she said gently.  “But perhaps your BMI was high back then, too.  Or maybe you were taller.”

“Taller?” I repeated.  “You mean I could be shrinking?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” she said, rising from her chair.  “Gravity always wins, so most people shrink as they get older.”

“Older?” I repeated.

“Older!  Now, lie back on the bed,” she said, “and let’s have a look at you.”

I must have looked alright, even for an old guy, because twenty minutes later she let me go.  Dressed again in my familiar, old clothes, the crinkly paper gown gladly discarded.  As soon as I got home, I headed for the computer to do the conversions—kilograms to pounds, centimetres to inches.  I figured the metric units were bigger than the imperial ones—as in one metre is longer than one yard—so my real numbers would probably be smaller.  I was surprised by the results.

“A hundred and seventy-six pounds!” I said to my wife, disbelievingly.  “Five feet, eight inches!  Thirty-six-inch waist!  This is crazy!  I’m taller than that!  Their scales must be off.”

“As long as you feel good,” my wife said, “don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not worried,” I said, convincing neither of us.  “But these numbers can’t be right.  She told me I was overweight, for crying out loud.  My BMI.”

“What was the number?”  My wife obviously knew what BMI meant.

“Umm, twenty-six point eight,” I said, referring to the scribbles I’d made on the back of my appointment card.  “I’m going to calculate it with the imperial numbers, see if it’s lower.”

It wasn’t, though.  I was overweight metrically and imperially, it seemed.

In the Book of Daniel, chapter 5, there’s a passage depicting a judgement visited upon King Belshazzar, where a spectral hand wrote words of condemnation on a wall.  Those words have been translated as:  You are weighed in the balance and are found wanting.

That’s exactly how I felt after my visit to the doctor’s office.  I’d been weighed and measured, and found wanting.  Wanting to be lighter, wanting to be taller, wanting to be thinner!

weighed

I tried to imagine how the poor old king must have felt when he saw the handwriting on the wall, but our situations were quite different.  It had to have been worse for him.  He lost his kingdom, after all, and his life.

All I have to lose is some weight.