When you turn seventy-four, you begin to think

When you turn seventy-four, you begin to think

Saturday, Nov. 4, marked my 74th birthday. One of my problems is that I still think of myself as being 17, which my wife often observes is older than my behavior. Many relatives have passed away including parents, all aunts and uncles and several of my first cousins. In that we are in the 53rd year of our marriage, Carolyn’s family is also mine. Except for my mother-in-law and one aunt by marriage, all of the family I inherited from Carolyn is also gone. As in all families, out of time and order, we have also lost nieces and nephews. We remember each and all as they made significant contributions to our lives. We visit cemeteries more than we once did, and now, often find our schedules revolve around funerals and memorials.

On this birthday, I am still working but have made some accommodations for age. I tire more easily than I once did. I am still excited about learning and creating as ever, but now suspect that I will not work into my nineties as I once expected to.

Over the past three years, Carolyn and I have started and completed the design and creation of our final resting place. Some of the younger members of our family think we enjoy that place more than we should, but in reality we are just so pleased to have it done. Thirty years ago, my dearest friend pasted away. Because he was so young, he had made no final plans. He asked me to go with him to pick out his coffin. I did, but it was hard. I vowed that neither Carolyn nor a friend would ever have to do that — and she will not.

If it would not result in such hysterical laughter, I would say that as I have aged, I have become less patient. Those who have lived and worked with me find that humorous as my personal mantra has always been, “I want it done right, and I want it done right now!” So much for any claims I would make of possessing the trait of patience. For a person who has had some many patients, it is amusing not to have had very much patience.

It is at these times and at this age that we begin to think seriously about what is now the immediate future. Our age of 80 is only six years away and at 80, things change rapidly. In my biological family, every member of my father’s generation who lived to be 80 had significant dementia. Except in a small number of conditions, genetics only incline us to certain maladies but with my family history, it does cause one to wonder. The only concern I have about that is that I don’t want to be a mean old man. No one in my family was. In his final illness, my father remained affable and kind. My mother, who lived to be almost 98, remained bright and alert until mere days before her death.

And as we look forward, it is impossible not to look backward. When I look at the circumstances of Carolyn’s and my life – again, to be 53 years together Aug. 7, 2018, I can’t think of us separately – it is impossible for me to believe that pivotal events happened by accident. I grew up in Natchitoches, Louisiana; Carolyn started school there in 1961. I moved back to Natchitoches in 1962 and met Carolyn in a speech class in September of that year.

Carolyn thought I was the most wonderful person she had ever met – well, that’s not exactly how it happened. However, she WAS wonderful. She was 19 years old and an elegant lady, even in her youth. We became good friends until two years, two months and two days later when I first held her hand! Dec. 7, 1964, we had our first date, which really wasn’t a date; Feb. 7, 1965, I asked her to marry me; and on Aug. 7, 1965, she did.

After two children, eight grandchildren and 44 years of practicing medicine, we have a library of memories, all of them good. Even those which might be considered otherwise bring smiles to our faces upon recollection. Oh, there were struggles from time to time, but never a doubt about the commitment that came from that first holding of hands and then, before Christmas 1964, that first kiss.

I remember the lyrics of a song first published in the year of our marriage, 1965:

“Well now that I’m old and I’m a’ready to go

I get to thinkin’ what happened a long time ago

Had a lot of kids, a lot of trouble and pain

But then, whoops oh lordy, well I’d do it all again

“Because she had kisses sweeter than wine

She had, mmm kisses sweeter than wine”

I have always enjoyed James Michener’s books and I remember his words in “Chesapeake.” In marriage, long after life has settled into a pleasant “sameness,” with the passing of the years, “remembering” is important. In “Chesapeake,” Michener put the following words into the mouth of a Quaker woman who gives advice to a young couple reciting their marriage vows. She said: “The cold winter nights of your old age will be warmed by the memories of the passions of your youth.” One of the enduring qualities and values of life is that youthful passions, well directed in the covenant of marriage, and well spent for years and years, provide staying power for a life-long relationship.

It is not melancholy that brings me to the point of looking to the future. The question arises in my mind more often than it once did, “How shall our lives end?” How shall we manage the years of unknowns when the distractions of this life are no longer? Gone are the anniversaries such as the first when the beautiful ivy I gave Carolyn to symbolize our marriage died in five days. Gone is the night I drove all night from San Antonio to Baton Rouge to be with Carolyn. Gone are the days when I used her best pot to cook something that should not have been cooked. But these and countless other rich memories populate the legacy of our lives.

Gone are the hurricanes and even “him-acanes” we endured. Carolyn and I started married life teaching school in Golden Meadow, Louisiana, where Betsy hit in September 1965. That is the only storm of dozens we have experienced from which we evacuated.

I love the idea and the experience of getting old with Carolyn and with my family. I love the fact that when finally my life draws to a close, even at the very end, my memories and thoughts will be of the joy of life, which we have had, which we are having, and which, even after the life we now know is over, we shall have for eternity.

Dr. James L. Holly is CEO of Southeast Texas Medical Associates, LLP (SETMA) in Beaumont.