My mom is about to turn 85 years of age in a few weeks. Recently, she illuminated one of my earliest fragments of memory with a story I had never heard before.
It took place deep in the winter of my third year.
Next month, three generations of descendants will gather in the Pacific Northwest to honor this remarkable woman and to celebrate, give thanks and marvel.
The coldest spot in Idaho happens to be where she and my dad ranched ancestral lands along the Idaho side of the Teton Mountains up in the nook between Montana and Wyoming.
It snows about 80 inches a year - much of it in blizzards - that back then buried the roads and any sign of fence lines.
Different than farming, ranching is year-round. No matter the weather, horses and cattle - especially cattle - rely on human being to get through the winter. It is a matter of life and death.
Several times a week during the winter and after the chores were done, my parents would bundle up me and my baby sister (my youngest sister wasn’t born yet) and load us on a piece of sheet metal my dad had fashioned as a sled.
Then my parents would don snow shoes and pull us a couple of miles up to the Reynolds's place. There they would play card games such as canasta, pinochle and hearts with their friends Bert and Vera before pulling us back down Snow Creek to our ranch house.
My memory is of bouncing along on a moonlit night behind my parents and listening to them laugh, something they did often when I was growing up, no matter how tough or tense things got.
At the time of this trek, my mom was just turning 22 years of age.
Death is something you see often growing up on a ranch but my mom has always been comfortable “talking” about death, beginning when I was just five when she lifted me up to see, touch and say goodbye to Mrs. Cordingly (her friend Vera’s mother) at the viewing prior to her funeral service.
That’s why I wasn’t surprised a few years ago when mom quipped while undergoing shots for pain from a spine injury, that “people live too long these days.” Even with her characteristic twinkle, I could tell she was serious.
Even though her eyesight was claimed more two decades ago, my mom remained as independent, determined, spry and quick-witted as ever. She has also lived much of that time alone, first as a caregiver to another spouse with severe Alzheimer’s, and then for many years in her own apartment.
Although mom has decided to give up her apartment this spring, she seems as resilient and joyful as ever. She’s just comfortable with the idea of death and she would like to go on her own terms.
Of course, she has prepared all of the necessary documents.
At 85, mom is only a few years older than the average lifespan now for females, which is 81. According to a Pew survey, she is five years away from the ideal median life span for Americans, 90.
The percentage of Americans preferring instead a life span of 78 or younger shrinks from 19% to 6% as we age. What people consider to be the ideal life span doesn’t vary according to education level or gender, but it does fluctuate by ethnicity, views on aging and religious culture.
A year ago, there was a fascinating report in “The New Republic” magazine by science editor Judith Shulevitz who also authored the book The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. She notes that scientists now believe the human body was designed to last about 72 years.
The report also notes that by 2060, when my grandsons will be in their 50s and my daughter will be about my mom’s age now, 1-in-5 Americans will be over the age of 65.
Hopefully by then, those bent on cutting Medicare and those trying to defend it will have come to terms with the fact that today, 30% of all spending in that program takes place in the last year of life, much of that in the last few months.
As noted by the author of a new book entitled Knocking On Heaven’s Door: The Path To A Better Way Of Death, we’ve designed a system for curing but not caring. Going forward, learning to do the latter is imperative and not just to accommodate deficit hawks.
But it is also wrong-headed to view people over 65 as a burden. As an example of the fact that this age group is the only natural resource on the increase, “The New Republic” report cites research that at-risk children “read better and get sent to the principal less often in classrooms where seniors are present for at least 15 hours a week.”
Half way through my 65th year now and writing this, my 1,113th essay(nearly 800,000 words) posted in the 1,462 days since I retired, may have something to do with the topic in addition to thinking back to my mom’s remarkable life and the life she and my dad gave me and my sisters.
Awe comes much more easily to me now. Time is measured not so much by pressure and achievement but by availability and gratitude for each moment of life.
Every interaction with my significant other or my daughter and my grandsons gives me the same warmth I felt as a three-year-old bundled up and listening to my parents laugh as my sister and I were pulled across the snow drifts on a moonlit night.
Thanks to her willingness to talk about death at a very early age and the warmth I will still soak up when I see my mom next month and on more frequent phone calls will sustain me when she is gone.
Until then, she is indeed a phenomenal natural resource.