"Happy birthday, Pappap!" I exclaimed into the phone this morning.
"Erin, hello! Thank you," my grandfather responded, on this, his 93rd birthday.
"What are you doing to celebrate?" I asked.
"Well, you know. Not too much. Same old thing, though I think I may have a Rolling Rock this afternoon," he said, with a little laugh.
"I wish I could be there to have one with you," I said.
"Me too, Erin. Me too," he said.
My Pappap turned 93 years old today, which in and of itself is quite something. But beyond the number of years he's roamed the earth, what's even more extraordinary is that he starts the road to 94 with the same can-do spirit, sense of humor, and downright stubborness he's had his whole life. At 33, it's hard for me to imagine not being simply exhausted 60 years from now.
He's seen World War II, the Great Depression, the death of his only daughter's husband, the loss of his wife. He's the last of 13 brothers and sisters who is still alive. He recently moved from the only home he's ever really known into a Veteran's Home in Western Pennsylvania, where he is one of the only residents on his floor with the ability to hold a lucid conversation. For a man who's thrived on deep family connections, long-standing friendships, and a social calendar that until recently rivaled a Hollywood starlet's, his capacity to adapt is a lesson of ridiculous proportions.
He (and we) thought it was the end for him about two years ago. My mother was spending weeks on end at his house, trying to convince him that he needed to decide which retirement home he wanted to move into. One night, enough was enough. We had to call an ambulance to take him to a hospital. An infection had disabled him completely and his health declined rapidly. While he was in the hospital, plans were made to move him directly to the Veteran's Home. That morning, as he was being taken out on a stretcher, was the last time he ever saw his home of nearly 65 years.
He spent the first few months in his new surroundings complaining a lot and telling us he was just waiting to die (much to my mother's general dismay). Confined to a wheelchair, he didn't see the point in sticking around. His pride was getting the best of him -- if he couldn't move with his own two legs, he decided he just didn't want to move anymore.
Soon, he was introduced to physical therapy, though. If you're not familiar, old people generally hate physical therapy. But my Pappap soon realized that the exercises were making it possible to regain some independence. And, besides that, they just made him feel good. One day when the physical therapist was running late, Pappap took it upon himself to call him, to make sure he was still coming. The therapist was shocked...he'd never met any resident quite like my Pappap.
While my grandfather is still largely confined to the wheelchair, he doesn't talk at all about if he'll walk again, but instead talks about plans to go out for dinner when he can walk again. He recently achieved a big milestone, after nearly 18 months of training: he can get himself out of bed without any help.
The last time I went for a visit, a nurse came in to take him for his daily walk -- one of very few things he insists on. He counts each step he takes with his walker and tries to add a few each day. Pappap beamed with pride when the nurse told me that he walks the farthest of all the residents on the floor. When I'm ready to quit on a training run or in a race, there's no way I can, knowing this.
The secret to a long and happy life?
"You gotta keep moving, Erin," he's said to me, more than once. "That's all."
When I asked him on his 92nd birthday how he felt, he replied that he was just waiting "to go."
When I asked him the same question today, he said, "I'm looking forward to my 94th."
Mind, body, spirit -- I need no other proof that they are all connected. It's only when you stop moving--even briefly--that you lose perspective...no matter how old you are.
Happy birthday, Pappap! Here's to another Rolling Rock on your 94th.