(Hamilton Spectator, Saturday August 27, 2011)
HAMILTON, CANADA – Today, Aug. 27, my father turns 80.
A full decade beyond his biblical allotment of three score and 10, this afternoon he’ll be ushered to a reception with photos and memories and sharing in a kind of This Is Your Life. There will be warm smiles and best wishes and gracious blessings.
Now, if you’re a city, old age can look good on you. Take North America’s two oldest capitals — Quebec City, that charming bridge from New World to Old; and Santa Fe, N.M., vibrant home of the artisans, sitting at the Sangre de Cristo, that is the Blood of Christ mountain range at the Rockies’ south tip.
Both cities, which I’ve visited this summer, are more than 400 years old.
But let’s face it. If you’re a human walking the earth, getting old is a mixed bag. Writer-theologian Frederick Buechner said it’s like living in a house needing more and more repairs: The plumbing needs work; bats are in the attic; windows are cracked and dusty and hard to see through. Then in bad weather, there’s that creaking and groaning.
No, old age is not for wimps. We approach it, even from a distance, with trepidation. At least I do.
It’s like your second childhood.
That’s what they say. Maybe. Perhaps any 80-year-old, not just my father, can practise being a young eight-year-old. I don’t mean this pejoratively.
Our eldest turned eight this summer. She’d like to do all kinds of things. But her body isn’t there yet. So, instead, she plays games.
You need a hearing aid? Have memory loss? Sore knees? No, that’s not fun. But maybe some elderly get on with it fine because they see past the frustration and consider it, well, a little funny.
Certainly children are good at being themselves. They have nothing to prove. Nor do the elderly. And while children may be afraid of what’s ahead, they’re often in touch with something the rest of us have lost, that inner goodness that sees them through.
Maybe it’s for these reasons that the very old and the very young often get along so well.
I don’t need to tell my father any of this. He knows it. Recently he humbly told me that he hasn’t done a good job facing his own mortality. He has assumed one day will always lead to the next. Like we all assume.
Still, my father, a war survivor and immigrant who has always carried a rich accent, has crammed much living into life.
For 50 years, he has practised as a registered massage therapist in the Niagara Region. First trained in Germany, he has been recognized as a guru in a vocation he has always considered, above all, one of healing.
Years ago the Ontario Massage Association formally awarded him for longevity. He just kept at it, keeping longer hours than therapists half his age. Now, with a bad back himself, he treats clients by sitting and moving his chair around the therapy table. And still, he wants more work.
This, in an old 1870s estate home. With one renovation or another over the decades, Dad Froese has also put his hands on it, a building he ran as a nursing home in the 1970s and 1980s, a big old manor that somehow seems as attached to him as he is to it.
And this all after a hard marital breakup that had my father travel from Canada to Cold War Berlin to lay claim to his kids. One summer day in 1968, the drama landed on the front page of the Toronto Telegram, headlined One Man’s Fight for his Two Children.
Dad and I met for the first time in Germany, the day before I turned three. Soon after, back in Canada with his kids, my father became a widower. He remarried more than two decades later. I was his best man.
Mere touchstones. That’s what these are. Much more has happened over these years. Like with any family, characters and situations, good times and hard times, have come and gone. Like with any family, there’s just too much to write.
But remember is what any of us must do. So we can forget — and then remember again.