By Ken Giglio, guest author
Every time I leave Florida and my 96-year-old father, like I did two weeks ago, I wonder how many more days he has until eternity. I joke with him that his age is a pre-existing condition. My joking is, I realize, a way to make light of my fear of the inevitable, for my father, Charlie, death is clearly closer than for most. Maybe the real joke is to think death will come first to the oldest among us.
Being with my father, I noticed how increasingly unsteady he is. I watched him shuffle and sway as he walked short distances without his walker, which he often stubbornly leaves behind. Straining to stand, I heard his coaxing voice, loud enough for anyone nearby to hear, “come on Charlie.” Once he pulled himself up to standing, we went about our day, starting with a trip to his favorite breakfast spot. Watching him get into the car, a set of maneuvers using his stronger arms to angle his shaky legs and butt onto the seat, I heard again, “Come on Charlie.” His tone was encouraging and pushy, without any judgment that I could pick up.
I’ve been hearing my father talk to himself for years, with only these words or variations on the theme always ending with his name. I can’t remember when I first noticed it, but I somehow associate this out-loud self-talk with more recent times and situations where he needs to push himself against the physical realities of old age.
At breakfast I asked my father when he started talking to himself in this particular way. I was really curious if it started out as an interior voice, which we all have to some extent. Yes, it did start in his mind, he told me, but quickly escaped and became vocal. He shared that the self-talking started when he was in the army as an 18-year-old stationed in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. His best army friend Cal, who he called a great foxhole buddy because he trusted him not to run away when under enemy attack, was redeployed to another division. “It depressed me,” my father said, “not to have Cal around, and I needed to talk myself out of it.”
He related the story I’d heard many times before about the bitter cold of the front lines in Belgium in January 1945, as the German troops repeated a pattern of retreat and counterattacks exhausting the American troops. This time the telling of this story was different, there was something in the telling I’d never heard before. My father had been lonely and depressed without Cal. He had lost other comrades to snipers and endured frostbite, but losing Cal was the hardest part. Still a teenager, he persevered by talking himself through that forced separation and the brutal months that culminated with his witnessing the evil of a Nazi concentration camp.
“Perseverance is a choice,” the writer Margaret Wheatly reminds. “It’s not a simple, one-time choice, it’s a daily one. There’s never a final decision.” For my father as an infantryman and as a 96-year-old, “Come on Charlie” was and is a mantra, a way for him to be there for himself every day. When I hear him invoke his name often with a determined grimace, I hear grit mixed with self-compassion. It seems he’s pushing against his aging body and mind and at the same time accepting it all.
“It’s about giving yourself that extra push,” my father explained while eating an egg croissant sandwich at his second favorite breakfast place, Panera Bread. He continued, “each situation is different and needs a different push. When you find yourself getting too lazy, you push yourself because you have some responsibility that your expected to be doing. You talk to yourself; you get off your ass,” he finished.
His emphasis on so much pushing made me feel pathetically lazy. I scanned my own responsibilities, like some writing projects I was procrastinating about. I also wondered again, as I have many times, how I will persevere as I age. How will I lift and straighten my body when it’s stiff and deal with loneliness when I lose the people I depend on and love? Watching my father pointing his crooked arthritic finger into the air to make a point, I realized there’s more to learn about life from this strong and wise man.
Spending time with my father has brought me closer to understanding the real meaning of perseverance. Watching how he takes on life has allowed me to leave behind a lot of “being angry at life for being life,” as the author and Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron puts it. I’m grateful for this new way of seeing life, because, like Charlie, we have all had hard living, giving us the need to persevere. I’ve never had to face enemy snipers hiding in the forest across a frozen field, and yet the life has given me plenty to be afraid of. Unlike Charlie, I didn’t grow up poor on the lower east side of Manhattan to immigrant parents. I didn’t lose my father to alcoholism when I was 12, and witness one of my bothers die from a tooth infection and the other institutionalized because his developmental disability was too hard for his widowed mother to manage. And, unlike my father, I didn’t lose my wife of 55 years to ALS. The woman Charlie serenaded on a on Kenmare Street in Little Italy after coming home from the service, my mother, Rose, died in 2007. So long ago but somehow so near to today. We all persevere.
A memory comes to me: I’m probably around 8 years old. Our new white Mercury Comet station wagon with the red interior had just pulled into the driveway. We were all proud of that car. It’s dark out and late; my siblings are asleep next to me in the back seat. From where I’m sitting on the far side of the car, I watch my father carry my 3-year sister up the front steps and into house. He’s holding her carefully, gently cradling her small form. He reappears for my bother next, the middle 5-year-old. He’s less gentle but still careful. My brother’s legs dangle and sway a bit as my father takes the stairs again and disappears into the house. I’m next, the oldest, and I wait in the dark wondering if I’ll get a wave in from my father as her reemerges from the house or if he’ll come and carry me in, too.
In that moment I decide to lie down and feign sleep. I wait for what feels like a long time until I feel a light tap on my leg. “Come on Kenny,” my father says in a gentle but firm voice, “I know you’re awake.” In this reimagined memory, he gathers me up in his arms and carries his anxious and creative oldest child up the stoop steps and then all the way up the interior stairs to my room where he lays me in bed and tucks me in.
Ken Giglio is an author and principal of Mindful Leadership, a global executive coaching and leadership consulting firm. He’s a New Yorker living in Bucks County, PA.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.