My Dad will turn 90 next month; we are taking him to Disney World again for his birthday. “Daddy,” I asked, “won’t it be fun to ride Space Mountain again like you did on your 80th birthday?” His reply, “I don’t remember my 80th birthday.” Having had grandparents that lived to be almost 100, and having just celebrated my parents’ 65th anniversary on a Caribbean cruise (which Dad says he doesn’t remember either) I have come to the conclusion that family celebrations and memories don’t have to be remembered by everyone. Don’t get me wrong, I love to reminisce about past celebrations of holidays and great times with family and friends. And I look forward to special birthdays and anniversaries to come. But recently I have reached a stage in life where I purposefully determine to live in the moment. Of course I love to look at old photos – especially with family and friends as we reminisce about old times. But that experience is in itself enjoying the moment. Then that later becomes a memory itself. So if Daddy doesn’t remember the cruise or his 80th birthday, then looking at the pictures may or may not be remembered as well. So what? We both enjoy the experience of looking at them, and living it all over again.
Not many people in their sixties have both of their parents living, and in fairly good health, and able to travel. Since I am one of those fortunate ones, I purposely cherish every moment I have with my parents, even weekly trips to the Doctor, physical therapy, or going to church.
Unlike Dad, my mother remembers everything – even times from my past that I wish she would forget. Yet even those times can now be filtered through the lenses of time, perspective and forgiveness. Dad, on the other hand, remembers people and events from his childhood and school years. So I bask in the telling and re-telling of his days of growing up during The Depression, being runner up to playing Tom Sawyer in an old MGM film, and even the name he gave his dog in 1928. He can name each of his classmates from his high school graduation of 1940 and their parents and grandparents as well. With vivid description he can recall dropping out of college to join the Navy during WWII. While in training to become a Naval pilot, he was stationed at Millington Naval Base outside of Memphis Tennessee, where his “love story” begins. Almost daily, he becomes teary-eyed every time he tells how he first saw the “Southern belle with the cute legs and long black hair” who was a sophomore at the University of Tennessee near their Naval Base. He has told us over and over the story of their first kiss under an old elm tree and how he knew from that minute on they would share their lives together. He usually ends the story with, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” Then when he gets the laugh this always evokes, as if on cue, he reminds us that there are only two words a fellow needs for a successful marriage of 65 years, “Yes, Dear.”
So my Dad has taught me the importance of selective memory. Who cares if he doesn’t remember what he had for breakfast? Thank God he doesn’t remember the cerebral hemorrhage and near death experience he encountered a few years back. We remember it all too well. We accept the fact that he may or may not remember birthdays, or anniversaries or even family names at times. The important thing – at least for now - is that I and the rest of our family remember all these things and don’t mind repeating them over and over again for Dad. Whenever we start to get exasperated or lose patience, we stop and recite the Serenity Prayer and thank God for the ninety-year-old man who is still the patriarchal head of our family, even if in title only. We are grateful for what we have in the present, and don’t even project what the future may hold. Whatever and whenever change comes, we will have the assurance that we have cherished every prolonged moment we were given.
I still love to just sit and hold the hand of the Daddy who ran behind me as he held me up on my first two wheeler. I cherish walking arm in arm with the handsome man who walked me down the aisle 40 years ago. I thank God he has forgotten all of my “terrible teen” years; I am grateful that he only remembers me as his precious Baby Girl, which is what he still calls me. More than anything, I too fight back tears several times a day, when he mumbles, “I am so glad God gave me the most beautiful, wonderful caring wife in the world.” He doesn’t even notice in the morning when her thinning white hair is sticking out like that of an old troll doll; he doesn’t care if she has her dentures in or not. All he sees is the beautiful young girl he married during WWII and who has lived by her vows to “love and honor him, in sickness or in health, until death do they part.”
So we have learned to live in the present. We laugh as if we are hearing his old jokes for the first time; we smile and nod as he tells us every day how they met; and we hug him and tell him how much we love him as he daily tells us the same. These are the memories I will cherish as long as I have memory. And for that I remain eternally grateful.
Dr. Debra Peppers, a professional speaker for 25 years, is one of only five inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, which followed her retirement from Lindbergh High School. A member of the National Speakers Association, she has traveled to all 50 states and 60 countries teaching others that if she can go from being a 250-pound high school dropout, to Teacher of the Year there is hope for every child and adult. Her web site is http://www.pepperseed.org.