Lately I have been thinking a lot about my father. He lived to be 101 years old, and I want to thank him for being with me for so long. Now that I am beginning to experience glimpses of the aging process, I feel the need to tell him what I’m going through. And I want to ask him to forgive me for every time I grew impatient because he was moving so slowly or kept repeating himself or refused to let me help him when I believed I could do whatever he was trying to do better than he could do it.
The more I ponder the phenomenon of having a parent live to be so old, the more I realize my privileged position. I was lucky not just to have him around for such a long time, but also because I could see what might happen to me as I got older — even really, really old. I keep wondering if the things that happened to him will happen to me.
Will the little black spots floating around in my right eye become the vegetables he thought he saw crawling on the wall? “Can’t you see them?” he’d ask me. “They look like cabbages.”
Will I ever become confused while driving in a rotary and keep going round and round, unable to figure out which exit I want? If I ever do, I know that will probably be the last time I drive a car, as it was for Dad.
My father was a chemist who worked for a company that made bubble gum; he was credited with inventing Chiclets and was constantly experimenting with substances like tooth-filling materials for a dentist friend and chocolate gum. In our basement, he had a huge workbench where he fiddled with unusual instruments and endlessly drew pictures of machines and other contrivances. He held several patents for various inventions. I thought of him as a modern Leonardo da Vinci who covered every piece of paper in sight with mechanical drawings. He loved to travel, and every summer our family made a road trip, eventually covering all of the United States and eastern Canada. He was an avid photographer, too, filling many books with his black-and-white shots, each meticulously marked on the back with name, date, place, and even f-stop.
At 99, he said to me, “I used to be a scientist, and now I can hardly add 2 and 2.” It was his wry way of joking because even then, he could do much more than that. The good thing was that he was aware of what was happening to him — the gradual slowing down of the mind and body, the difficulty writing a straight line on a checkbook, falling asleep in the middle of a conversation, becoming frustrated at forgetting a name. But then, many of my friends and I are frustrated right now at forgetting names, not remembering the book we just read, writing down the wrong date for an event.
When I was growing up, my father always said grace at the dinner table. After giving thanks for the food and for our good health, he always ended with “And thank you for the ability to think and know.” I could never forget that phrase, and it comes back to me as I remember how important it was for him to be curious, to be engaged, to keep learning new things. I am known by many friends as an extremely — perhaps overly — curious person, and I suppose I inherited that from my father.
I keep his way of looking at life in mind as I ascend the aging ladder, closer and closer to him. I am fortunate, as he was, to still have the ability to think and know.Gwen Romagnoli is the author of “Learning to Be a Widow: Stories of Love, Loss, and Lessons Learned Along the Way.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.