Uncle Ben was 102 years old when he fell out of bed and broke his hip.
Well, he didn’t exactly fall. He was in the hospital overnight for some tests and the attendant dropped him.
Ben was a railroad man, missing two fingers on his right hand, the common badge of the men who couldn’t get out of the way of the couplers on the train cars in the early days of rail. He was my grandfather’s baby brother, the youngest of 24 children.
My Uncle Ben was living proof that every day makes a difference. I remember him, well past 100, standing at the stove, whipping us up a pan of peppers and eggs. He loved to cook, he loved to dance and he still had an eye for a pretty girl.
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The pretty girl in his life at that time was Aunt Mabel who, at 95, declared, “I’ve still got plenty of flirt left in my skirt.” It was enough to make me wish I owned a skirt.
The broken hip took him out of the lifestyle he loved and Uncle Ben sued the hospital.
The attorney for the hospital argued, “No need to settle a lot of money on the old gentleman. At his age, he won’t be needing help much longer.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” the judge said, “the night before the incident, the old gentleman was out square dancing. Were you? I know I wasn’t.”
Verdict for the old gentleman.
For the next two years, Uncle Ben was the head of a brigade of wheelchair-bound ladies, streaking around the assisted living community. I think the hope was that whoever caught him got to keep him. He made a business of getting all he could out of every minute and instigating joy everywhere he wheeled.
Some people say that age is just a number. Personally, I think that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. Before you and I meet again, I will have celebrated what is delicately called a milestone birthday. The number is 85.
Let me tell you, age is not a number. It’s a challenge.
“Eighty-five?” said a witty fellow. “Why you don’t look it! I thought you were probably only 84 1/2.”
He waited a moment for his wit to be appreciated. I hope he’s still waiting.
Paula Span, writing in the New York Times, points out, that by age 85, the average remaining life expectancy for Americans is six years. An 85-year-old has a 75 percent chance of living another three years, but only a one in four chance of surviving for 10. This is likely to cut into my party plans.
In my new book, “True Tales of Puget Sound,” (See what I did there?) I write about Lenore Clem, who was known as The Heart Lady of Fox Island.
Lenore was approaching 70 when she received a request from Mary Bridge Hospital in Tacoma to create something to be used as an award for children who attended a camp for kids who had cancer. Lenore thought about it, and then she created soft stuffed hearts, just the right size to hold in a small hand.
The kids loved them. They were plump and squeezy. The hearts were popped in incubators with preemies or sent to grieving mothers. Soon Lenore was sending hearts around the world.
I sat with her on camera one day and she could turn out a soft heart in four minutes. It took me that long to thread the needle.
By the time, Lenore passed away in 2014 at 92, it was estimated she was responsible for sending more than 100,000 hearts around the world. I carry some with me. In a time when kindness is often mistaken for weakness, it’s important to remember it’s not necessary to do something big. It’s only necessary to do what you can.
Lenore’s daughter, Georgia, wrote, “What a wonderful world it would be if everyone had a feelie heart in their pocket to remind them that they are in someone’s heart.”
When I was very small, my parents saved up to buy me a real baby doll for Christmas. My dad was disappointed when I pronounced the doll “pwetty,” and then went back to playing with the box, which I thought much more interesting.
It’s taken me a lot of years to realize it’s important not to get too wound up in the wrappings. The real gift comes from the heart.
Two parties in one
Readers are invited to attend Dorothy Wilhelm’s combination birthday and launch party for her new book, “True Tales of Puget Sound.” It will be from 1-4 p.m. Jan. 20 at Fort Nisqually in Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park.