We met for lunch together recently...four and half couples. We are part of an old family that is valiantly trying to maintain a sense of togetherness. Three and a half all live within a few miles of each other, Lib and I drive over a two hundred miles round trip for these meetings. We gather for a restaurant meal to chit chat and exchange news about our families and the lives we are living. We also inquire and want details about each other’s health. Sometimes we get more than we asked for, but that is part of the exercise, to listen, listen, and let each other know we care and that their lives have meaning and value for us.
The oldest couple, Weldon and Catherine, are pushing ninety but are relatively healthy. Lib was a little girl when he was dating her oldest sister. She would plop herself up on his lap and try to get his attention away from her sister. He would bribe her with a stick of gum to leave the room so the adults could have some privacy. This oldest couple has a large and successful family of their own with many grandchildren and a few great grandchildren. They’ve had a long and loving life together. Just recently they have started to slow down. He doesn’t walk as far as he used to and she has an eye going bad. They don’t travel to visit family or attend sports events with quite the old frequency.
The next family member is the half couple. They were the ones that had to grow their own farm operation because he was the second son and traditionally the oldest son had first call on buying the family farm. By being frugal and hard working Carson and Lucille reared a small but successful family. Some years ago he slowly became incapacitated by arthritis and relied on a walker to get around. Then several years ago he had a viral infection that damaged his brain and she shortly developed heart issues. Both have been in and out of the hospital several times and finally she could no longer safely care for the both of them and he is now in a nearby assisted care facility. Their lives the last few years have been tenuous and difficult. Now the separation and his confusion make the pain even more acute. Lucille doesn’t complain but we imagine how lonely she must be and we anguish at his not understanding quite where he is or why.
The sister and husband of the next pair resemble in many ways the eldest couple. In fact Weldon introduced Gene to his wife’s sister, Margaret. He was from Ohio so was not a local person. Because his church background was Brethren this gave him the initial approval necessary for entry into the family. He worked his way up in a trucking business from driving to scheduling and managing in the local office. Their four sons all graduated from college and they have a moderate size family of children and grandchildren. Gene’s had several health scares over the last decade but seems to be in fair condition now. His wife is suffering some memory loss, but both have an up beat attitude about their remaining years. He still sings in the Rockingham Male Chorus and does a fair amount of volunteer work.
The pair ahead of us are still nearly a decade older. Her first husband, a cousin of mine, died from a heart attack a number of years ago. A few years later Evelyn married Lowell and most of the years with him were good. I remember how much fun they seemed to be to each other in those years. Last year she developed a pulmonary condition that requires oxygen maintenance and has suffered bouts of depression. Her husband, an affable and caring person has had some problems with “dizziness" and forgetfulness. Of all the sisters she was probably the most vivacious. Now she just survives the best she can. It’s scary when one becomes breathless at the slightest exertion. The picture I took at the restaurant shows a glimmer of that ability to have a good laugh.
Then there is us. I’m the oldest son from my family and Lib is the last one in hers. I, too, was the outsider, but Lib’s mom knew a little about my family (church of the Brethren missionaries) and her sister had been married to that cousin of mine. That helped! To her siblings she is still the baby. They laugh when we remind them we are in our 70's. We’re just young folk compared to them and they are right. There are a sister and a brother and his wife who have already passed on.
As we look up the family tree from our vantage point we see how our later years may play out. We envy some of our contemporaries who can still walk three miles or dance the night away. How wonderful to be arthritis and pain free. On the other hand, we are most grateful to be able to reinvent ourselves in a new place and be so near, at least, one of our children. We don’t plan five or ten years in the future, but rather live as best we can in the near present. Sudden death by heart attack or accident looks a lot more attractive than the slow debilitating downward and inevitable spiral we are witnessing. It is not a frequent topic of discussion between Lib and I. (Women are life givers and maintainers, death and dying seems sort of an unpleasant subject to be avoided in polite conversation at all costs). I do ponder, because we are statistically at that point in our lives when either the sudden exit or the slow spiral down is imminent. There is much to weigh and consider.
What a blessing to be part of a family even the remnants! This family (originally Flory) still convenes a family reunion each summer in the Harrisonburg/Bridgewater area . There the next generation, now in their early 50's and 60's, mixes and learns from those of us at the next stage. They’re beginning to see life more from our perspective and less from their children’s. We sort of become living parables to each other, to learn how to deal with both the richness and the pain that living brings. I learn from my Flory side in-laws how love between man and wife is expressed in gentleness, patience, and tolerance, helping each other bear and manage their infirmities rather than complaining or blaiming. Another ten years and most of the original Flory brother and sisters will likely be gone. Here’s hoping that the future of the next generation will be as kind to them as ours was to us. And that they, too, will live long enough to understand and benefit from this later chapter in life.