This Post is different from my usual posts on this blog site because it is written by Barrie Von Smith, M.D.
Barrie was the Student Body President of Rancho Alamitos High School in 1961-62, the year I graduated from that high school. When our class celebrated its 50th reunion, I was overheard saying I wasn’t certain if I wanted to attend the 50th reunion because I wasn’t good at making small talk. Barrie suggested I help with an event at that reunion called Life Changing Moments. At this event, classmates shared stories of very meaningful life changing moments, definitely not small talk, and I loved being part of that event. Now our 55th reunion is approaching in September of 2017 and we are again offering an alternative to small talk called Sharing Life’s Latest. All classmates are invited to share an update on their life today and to contribute any suggestions they have on how they make life meaningful in the final fifteen percent of their lives. With permission, I will be publishing their suggestions on this blog and providing an electronic copy of everyones’ stories and suggestions to the members of the class. What follows is Barrie’s story:
Boise Idaho 2014
My eye doctor is giving me instructions following my second retinal detachment surgery: “You will have to limit your activities. No strenuous exercise, no competitive sports, and no running for the next year.”
“How about jogging an easy 6-mile/hour, a 20-mile bicycle ride, or an easy ¼-mile swim?” I ask. Certainly that would not be considered strenuous.
He emphatically shakes his head side to side. “You’re 70-years old. Do you really want to do those things? Take life easy.”
Of course I was not seriously thinking of following these instructions. But I was seriously thinking about not wanting to be blind for the next 20 years. I had always told myself that I would age gracefully. All my life I worked at being physically fit. My motto was ‘Use it or lose it’. My five senses; smell, sight, hearing, taste, and touch, I took for granted – not much I could improve on there. But lately even these seemed to betray me and I was feeling helpless to do anything about it.
Now I was in a position of rethinking my identity and I did not like it much. My retirement for medical practice was a challenge for the same reason. It took me a while to think of myself as a retired doctor. But it had been easier. I had always looked forward to the time when I did not have to work every day. And I had retired gradually; first selling my Emmett practice in 2005, and then retiring from the military in 2012.
This business of not being as physically active as I want to be is a whole different issue. My grandkids love the grandpa who can take them back packing, shooting, canoeing, or play football, baseball, or basketball with them. If I cannot do those things, who am I?
In early 2015, my doctor allowed me to do some jogging and said that back packing in moderation would be OK. So I took off for a hike into one of my favorite lakes. For several months I had really tried to be good. My wife and I came to an agreement that I would not take any chances, and she promised not to regulate my activities. For several months I had become more conservative in my investments, I did not begin any new building projects, and I did not enter any athletic competitions. I even revised my will. Now I was fishing and hiking in the mountains ‘having a good time’.
But I was not having a good time. On the third day, I woke up in the middle of the night anxious and claustrophobic. I got up and began walking along the trail. I cannot not live this way anymore, I thought. I am just waiting to die. I need challenges, projects, and goals in the here and now. No matter what I had done in the past, it did not replace the need of having something meaningful each day. Before, hiking had been respite from working hard, now it just filled time.
I returned home, knowing I needed to change my outlook. Life is not a project that ends when it is completed. It is an experience never totally planned, never completely finished, always changing, and challenging us to adapt in positive ways. It is a journey and we never quite figure in advance where it is leading. When I was young I accepted this, but I was confident that I would figure it out when I was older.
So here I am today: one fairly good eye, semi deaf, bad back, and very forgetful. Every morning is an adventure. I slowly roll over to the side of the bed and straighten up to see how much it is going to hurt today. I dress and slowly head for the gym for an hour of stretching, aerobics and weight lifting. Breakfast and a good bowel movement and I am ready for the day. My body teases me with some pain but it does not let me down.
Today I push a little harder than some, a big project to complete. Tomorrow I may pay for it, but I never know; I may even feel better for it. It feels good to challenge life every day. Sometimes I am amazed at how much I can do, and at other times I am dismayed by how little I accomplish. But I usually take the risk and it feels satisfying that I don’t shrink from the challenge. It’s one day at a time to be lived and enjoyed. It’s one more opportunity to see who and what I am, and then try to do better on the next one.
For the last couple of years, something else is also happening. I enjoy other people more. I no longer feel a need to prove myself to others. My wife says I am kinder, more patient, and more tolerant. I feel less sure about life situations, but more confident that I am OK. I do not try to fix others; I focus on what I need to change. I help where needed and do not worry about whether it is worth it. I am happy if I get one thing done today. There is something out there bigger than who is in control and that makes me feel good for now.
May 2017 Update
My April East Coast Trip:
My wife and I try to be involved in a meaningful and helpful way with each of our children. Three of them are on the east coast, so at least once a year we make a transcontinental trip to spend time with them. They love to talk with mom but dad is the project man. I get things done that have been on the back burner for months. This year was no exception. I must confess that of all the home and yard fix-it jobs, plumbing is the worst. One of these projects almost always involves at least three trips to the hardware store and twice as much time as one would expect.
Well Lisa had a drain that was partially plugged and nothing she had done had solved the problem. I put the job at the end of the list. Finally at 6 pm. on the evening before we left, she got me started. Everything went wrong. The bottom line was that every new joint leaked after I had put in the new parts. After three trips to the store and multiple revisions I was beaten. At 10 pm, I had to admit that this was a job for a plumber. My daughter was looking at a weekend of no bathroom and that was not good.
I had been in a similar circumstance about four years ago with another daughter. It was one of the most emotionally trying experiences of my life. I am not used to failure and when I take something on, I like to follow it to the end. But this time I handled it very well. I felt certain that I had approached the project properly and had done my best. My best was not enough and I now needed help. It was that simple. I could not conquer everything in life and if were smart I would get help. Instead of feeling helpless I felt empowered. Help is almost always available. I just have to know when to ask for it. In this instance I did and that was just fine.
Since my latest retinal detachment, I have been cautious to avoid jarring activities for fear that I may experience a recurrence. Doctors are great at planting fear in the hearts of their patients. On this trip, my grandchildren wanted to spend a day at Six Flags. This place is filled with scary, fast-moving rides. First up was the Joker, a roller coaster that did steep drops and loops. It happened to be similar to the California Screamer that was the precursor to my last retinal problem. My wife was opposed, my daughter was worried, but the grandkids were excited, so we went. I have to say that I had some second thoughts. When I got off I was dizzy and had some blurred vision, both of which cleared in a few minutes. I felt great. I had the courage to get out of the ‘box’ and it was liberating.
Life without challenge and risk just is not very enjoyable for me. It’s not so much the reward of achieving as the facing an obstacle and not backing down.
I had a great trip.