Forever Young? I'll Take Forever 52
On a cold Friday in late January of 1975, I skipped a senior history seminar class at college and drove three hours home to surprise my father for his 60th birthday, bringing him a bottle of his favorite Napoleon brandy.
I found him sitting alone in his cozy office behind old Irving Park Shopping Center, reading Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings, a collection of essays about life and faith.
The office was empty, I learned, because he’d taken his six employees to lunch at Irving Park Delicatessen and then insisted — owing to snow flurries in the air — that they take the afternoon off, typically never mentioning it happened to be his birthday. My old man’s youthful energy and generous optimism had even fooled me. Had my mother not phoned me on the sly just to let me know my dad was turning 60, I might have skipped what turned out to be a memorable afternoon with him.
The moment I appeared before him, at any rate, flushed with cold and holding his favorite tipple, he hopped up and gave me a warm hug and wondered — with a sudden look of mild concern — why I’d come home unannounced. Was everything OK back at school, with life in general, with my new girlfriend?
I assured him everything was just fine with all the above, and that I might even soon graduate. I’d simply come home, I pointed out, to mark his important milestone of a birthday.
“It’s not every day you turn 60,” I said.
“Don’t make it sound so old,” he shot back genially. “My best years are ahead. Besides, I subscribe to both Satchel Paige and Lady Astor on the subject. Paige said getting older is all a question of mind over matter — as in, if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
“What about Lady Astor?”
“She refused to admit she was a day older than 52 — even if it meant all her children were illegitimate.”
He laughed, I laughed, and we pried open the Napoleon brandy and had a legitimate snoot to Paige and Astor and being forever 52. In just over a week, he reminded me, I would turn 22.
“Blink your eyes, young buck, and you’ll be turning 60, too. You won’t believe how quickly you’ll get there. The bad news is, your golf game won’t be worth a hoot. The good news is, you may be a lot wiser and happier than you can even imagine at this point. That’s why you should never waste a minute complaining about the way things turn out. Everything evolves and there are always compensations.”
This was vintage Opti the Mystic, the silly nickname my brother and I had for our ever-upbeat father the eternal optimist, the gung-ho early riser, a true believer and adman with a poet’s heart.
Whatever else was true, he did seem an almost ageless character in our eyes, an inspiration to his friends and employees and — save the graying temples — almost immune to growing old.
Yet I remember sitting with him companionably sipping my brandy as the snow picked up outside and asking him — a bit smugly, upon reflection, sounding every bit the history seminarian — to tell me a dozen things he’d learned in 60 years.
“Oh,” he said vaguely, clearly enjoying my surprise visit and his toddy, “this and that. You already know some of them. You’d probably laugh, being almost 22.”
“Try me,” I insisted.
So he did — though I can only recall the broad strokes of his reply. The usual themes of his core beliefs were certainly present — always keep an open mind, never stop learning as you go, laugh at yourself, whatever you give to others comes back double in other ways — things my brother and I had heard him say (and rolled our eyes over) forever.
The funny thing is, whatever cornball things he articulated that afternoon, he was spot on about two observations.
His best years did in fact turn out to be ahead of him. Though he was soon diagnosed with colon cancer, requiring radical surgery and a major lifestyle adjustment, he never complained and went right on working and living his upbeat philosophy for the next two decades, arguably displaying even a greater zest for life and people, significantly growing his business, moderating a weekly men’s Sunday discussion group at church, hacking around with his regular golf buddies and taking my mom off to the mountains or coast for weekends away.
He closed his office only a few weeks before he passed away, and I was smart enough to place my busy life in Maine on hold and come home to be his daily caregiver until he slipped away one sleety March morning. We talked about this and that and managed to leave nothing left unsaid.
This month, wonders of wonder, I turned 60.
My children are now the age I was when I surprised my father at his office with a very good bottle of brandy on a snowy January afternoon long ago. Funny how that happened in the blink of an eye.
Both are living and working in New York City, starting brave new careers and broadening their young lives, and though I would be delighted if they suddenly showed up unannounced and bearing a fine bottle of Italian plonk for the old man, I’d also be a bit worried they were needlessly taking important time away from their busy schedules just to observe my birthday.
Besides, thanks to Satchel Paige, Lady Astor and Opti the Mystic, I would likely tell them, my new aspiration is to someday be forever 52, a highly legitimate ambition since 60 is said to now be the new 40. In any case, when all four of our kids recently came for Christmas, we agreed to postpone the birthday party and plonk until a family beach gathering in July. By then I’ll probably be on straight ginger beer anyway.
The strange truth is, I’ve never felt more alive and fulfilled by work and relationships — not to mention optimistic about the future — than this moment, come to think of it, any other time in my life.
I’m not quite sure how I earned this good fortune, though it may have something to do with the things my old man used to say to me that made me roll my eyes.
Funny how he grew smarter as I grew older. Not so funny, I think, how quickly I went from 22 to 60.
Even so, with a little luck, I hope to save my best for last, too, whatever that turns out to be. Yet if you asked me to state what I’ve learned in 60 years of living, I would have to admit I’m still in learning mode, definitely a work in progress.
All I can tell you for sure is:
Gray hair happens. So do life’s triumphs and trials, large and small, most of them unforeseen. Learn to deal with whatever comes along with grace and humor and an open mind and you’ll be better for it, having earned every gray hair on your head.
Never stop learning. Cicero learned to play the harp at age 60. Picasso began painting in the nude at this age. Don’t tell anybody, but I’m contemplating learning to play the harp in the nude.
Create your own life. It’s yours to do with what you please. Find your passion and purpose and chances are you’ll never go wrong.
Love matters most. Share liberally. As I still tell my grown-up kids [insert eye roll here] and really anyone else who will listen these days, it’s corny but true — love in all forms is the most powerful force in the universe.
The thing that will make you happiest and keep you forever 52.
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