If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve probably figured out that my father is one tough old bird. He was my grandmother’s first born son, and was yanked forcibly from his mother’s womb a month prematurely via a forceps delivery after her water broke. As a result, his left brachial plexus was damaged, leaving his left arm paralyzed. By good luck and sheer determination, the paralysis was not permanent and he went on to graduate from high school at 16, attend college and dental school, join the Navy, decide he didn’t like being a dentist, go to medical school, and ultimately become a world renowned plastic surgeon. It’s been a tough act to follow, that’s for sure. There are two things I remember vividly from my childhood—the first is that wherever we went he was always on the lookout for imperfection in the faces of strangers, and never hesitated to let us kids know how he would fix such imperfections. The second is that he was an artist, in real life and not just in the operating room. In this age of computer modeling, it is hard to remember that there was a time when my father would see a new patient in an exam room, study her profile, sketch it on the white exam table paper, and proclaim, “This is how you look now.” He would then draw an idealized portrait next to the first sketch and state triumphantly, “And THIS is how I will make you look!” If you think there was a single patient who could resist that kind of sales pitch, think again.
If ever I was going to doubt my father’s resilience, it was this year. When my mother passed away in January after a long struggle with dementia, he promptly went into congestive heart failure from a stenotic aortic valve. Ten years after his coronary bypass surgery, he had a second open heart surgery to replace the valve. When we all realized that he could no longer tolerate the altitude of his retirement home in Snowmass, Colorado, he decided to move to San Diego, living with me while we sorted out his health issues. After the heart surgery, he began to chafe for his independence, but was also not confident of his ability to meet new people, make new friends and start over at the age of 88. We urged him to at least try, and so, two weeks ago he moved into the lovely retirement community of La Costa Glen in nearby Carlsbad, California. The first week was a bit rocky—at one point the community lost electricity, and I had forgotten to supply him with simple safety gear—a flashlight, some candles. He worried that he could not remember the name of every new person he met, until I reminded him that the reason La Costa asks its residents to wear their name tags is that no one ELSE could remember HIS name, either. Sometimes I can’t even remember my own, these days.
Yesterday however I knew he had turned the corner. He spoke excitedly about a dinner party he attended on Friday night, and about the bridge games he was playing, and about the Great Ideas sessions that the community holds where residents who are retired from all walks of life can discuss the nation’s problems, and potential solutions. But the truth was revealed when he whispered conspiratorially over the phone, “And a lady has already asked me to partner up!” I said, “Partner up? What does that mean?” He said, “You know—each person has their own living space, but you do EVERYTHING together, meals, activities, and ….you know!” I said, “Dad, you’ve only been there two weeks. You are going to have to beat those ladies off with a stick! You need to play the field for a little while before you partner up!” He laughed. It’s good to know that life begins at eighty eight!