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Archive for February, 2021

My Birthday, Life Expectancy, and Regret Lists

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“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” ―Joseph Stalin

NEWS ITEM: “Life expectancy in the United States fell by a full year during the first half of 2020 [to 77.8 years], a staggering decline that reflects the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as a rise in deaths from drug overdoses, heart attacks and diseases that accompanied the outbreak…” Washington Post, February 17, 2021

“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” ―Psalm 90:10

NEWS ITEM: Last week, Hank Dunn celebrated his birthday on Zoom with his family in Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, and Mississippi. His age is north of the biblical “threescore and ten” and south of “fourscore.”

I tend to take life expectancy tables personally.

Here’s a sobering statistic — of every 100,000 people born in my birth year, only 73,246 are still living. CDC report “United States Life Tables.”

But wait…there’s more! Of those my age, our life expectancy is now about 14 years. That means in 14 years half of those my age who were alive in 2021 will be dead. So, it’s 50-50 I will make it to 2035.

Me with my sister, Janice, and my brother Dennis, 2017. Two weeks after this photo was taken, Dennis died on my birthday.

And looking at the stats closer to home is just as sobering. Of the six people in my family of origin (me, my parents, two brothers, and a sister) only two of us are still living. I hate to agree with Stalin. But the fact that 26,754 out of 100,000 people in my cohort are now dead is a statistic to me. But when my 64-year-old brother, Dennis, died on my birthday in 2017 — that was a tragedy.

Passing 70 and living under the threat that I could die abruptly from COVID-19 has gotten me thinking about legacy. What do I want to leave emotionally and spiritually to my children and grandchildren? And what about all this stuff I have written — some of it quite personal and self-revealing?

“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” ―Samuel Johnson (d. 1784)

I have said to myself what I tell patients with a terminal diagnosis, “Keep your regret list short.” If I were to die, are there things I would have regretted leaving undone? Gathering my personal writings like a memoir has been on my list. Thinking about my own death is not depressing to me. In this moment of time, while I am healthy, I agree with Samuel Johnson — thinking about my death concentrates my mind wonderfully.

I have been organizing things I have written over the last 45 years or so, and they are legion. I have printed out almost 700 pages and gathered them in two-inch thick binders. In these pages I can trace my spiritual growth (or lack thereof) over those years. I wrote about family tragedies, joys, and hurts I sustained.

Do I expect all my children and grandchildren to read all this stuff? Hardly. I would rather make it available and they never be read than someday one of them wonder what my thoughts were about a family event and not have my spin on it.

Keep your regret list short.


Human Kindness is Overflowing

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When I saw it, I felt in my heart, “Isn’t that a wonderfully kind thing to do?”

It was our last hour at the beach, so my daughter Katie and I decided to walk down the sand one more time. Some very generous friends let us stay in their condo about a half mile from the beach at Marco Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

As we headed north, walking next to the water, I noticed a stick in the sand holding up some car keys. Obviously, someone had lost the keys. Also, obviously, someone else had found them and took the time to find a stick to sink into the sand so the keys would be on display for any passerby to see.

Katie and I continued our walk enjoying the birds, people, sand, and sun. She picked up a live starfish she found in a pool of water and returned it to the sea.

On our way back, heading south, we came upon the stick in the sand and the car keys were gone. When we got up next to the stick we saw, in large letters written in the sand, a very simple, “THANK YOU.”

Isn’t that a wonderfully kind thing to do? Kind of the person who found the keys and took the time to display them — and kind of the owner of the keys to write, “Thank you.”

Immediately, I thought of a line from a Randy Newman song, “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”:

 “Human kindness is overflowing, and I think it’s going to rain today.”

I think I first heard that song sung by Judy Collins on her 1966 album, In My Life. Bette Midler also sang it on the soundtrack for the movie, Beaches.

“Wait a minute,” I thought. Sure, it was kind act…but it was a kind act that served a very first-world problem. I didn’t notice the make of the car keys, but in this part of Florida luxury cars are common. Who knows, they could have been to a Ford Pinto. (But probably not.)

Regardless, someone had the means to have a car and the leisure time to hang out at the beach. Someone else also had the leisure time to rescue the keys. And here I was, lucky enough to have the leisure time to take note of all of this.

Photo I took of a sunset on Marco Island

I couldn’t help but think of this past year and the strain the pandemic has put on our kindness to one another. The keys on the beach proved that kindness is still out there, but what about the folks who don’t have a car right now? The folks who can’t drive to get a COVID vaccine? Or those who can’t pay their bills, let alone have leisure time at the beach? What about all of the families with children struggling with school during the pandemic? Those who have lost loved ones?

The list of those who could use a little kindness is endless.

I looked up the lyrics to Newman’s song and had totally forgotten that several of his lines were a call to care for those in need. Get this:

     “Bright before me the signs implore me

     “To help the needy and show them the way

     “Human kindness is overflowing

     “And I think it’s going to rain today…”

So, yes, let’s return the keys to our first-world friends. But then let’s extend the kindness beyond.

Signs of Hope Amid COVID

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When will our lives get back to “normal?” Is there hope this will ever happen?

I had cable news on the other day and saw this in the crawl at the bottom of the screen: “For the first time, vaccinations outnumber new hospitalizations 10 to 1.”

I took that as a very hopeful sign.

Think about it. Each time a person goes into the hospital with COVID-19, ten more just got a vaccination. And right now, those getting the shots, are the ones most likely to end up in the hospital if they were to get infected — the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.

I must say, just seeing that crawl lifted my spirits slightly.

And then, there was the day I got my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. (Yes, I qualified.) I got in the line of cars, filled out paperwork, inched the car along until it was my turn, received my shot from a National Guard member in fatigues, and joined the wait line for observation. My fifteen minutes were up, and I was on my way home.

My spirits lifted a little more.

Zoom brought out his feelings like nothing else

Laura Fraser (in San Francisco) and her 92-year-old father, Dr. Charles Fraser (in Denver) pose for a portrait via Zoom (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Stories continue to be told about the good that has come out of the pandemic. Just the other day the Washington Post ran a great piece about how Zoom has changed a family’s life. Laura Fraser writes about her 92-year-old father, Dr. Charles Fraser, a former physician living in a retirement facility with limited visitation.

Between his flip phone and clunky old computer, Dr. Fraser did not have the capacity to participate in an online chat. So, Laura writes:

“My husband and I bought a cheap laptop, loaded it with his email account, photos, Zoom and a password written in indelible ink on the keyboard, and mailed it off. After many tries, voilà! There he was on Zoom, with his crooked nose from the time a horse kicked him, and the familiar warm brown eyes. I hadn’t been sure I would see that face again, and I teared up.

“That’s all there is to it?” Dad asked. My sisters and their kids dialed in, and Dad held a smile so long I thought his computer had frozen.”

“Before he signs off, he tells us he loves us.”

Laura’s dad had never been one to talk about his feelings, his childhood, how he felt about his children,  or even how much he missed his wife, now gone ten years. On Zoom he has opened up for the first time. She ends her hope-filled story with this:

“A few weeks ago, over Zoom, Dad was able to see his great-granddaughter for the first time. He was delighted to learn that my nephew and his wife have named her after my mother, Virginia. ‘I just can’t wait to hug her,’ he says. His mood has lifted. He laughs as little Ginny burbles and coos. He does something else that’s new for him. Before he signs off, he tells us he loves us.”

Another little sign of hope in a time that needs so much.

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