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Keeping Up With Dad
At 60, Jane Ratcliffe is both inspired and challenged by her 95-year-old father's uncommon heartiness.
“Wait up, Dad,” I call as we venture down the steep meandering cobbled lanes of Clovelly, a historical fishing village, once owned by the wife of William the Conqueror and perched precariously on the edge of a sea cliff.
The cobblestones are large and shiny. The decline audacious. Every few feet, the path swerves sharply, and I find myself gripping the stone wall as I make my way forward. Ahead of me, my dad takes the corner with ease, passing other pedestrians also headed to the breathtaking cove below.
“Dad,” I call again, he turns back, smiles, and waits for my cousin and me to catch up.
Every few feet, the path swerves sharply, and I find myself gripping the stone wall as I make my way forward. Ahead of me, my dad takes the corner with ease, passing other pedestrians…
Down we go, past the colorful cottages with slate roofs and bright, tidy gardens, stores full of rock candy and statues of donkeys (inaccessible to cars, donkeys were once the favored mode of transportation). This is our fifth trip to England, my dad’s homeland, since my mom died nearly five years ago. During these trips, he’s charged up hills “storming” Welsh castles, trotted over the rocky Southeastern beaches, darted along the thrillingly narrow one-track (the width of one car but meant for two-way traffic) country lanes that cut through tall grass in a left-handed stick shift, hiked patches of the notorious South West Coast Path, and traipsed through the thick, rugged forests of the Lake District.
Reader, my father is 95 (today!).
At last, at the bottom, we rest along the massive stone wall that serves as a breaker to the Bristol Channel and eat curry and chips, and oooh and ahhh over how tricky it is to come down such a steep incline paved with such shiny and slippery rocks.
“I can’t believe you did that,” I say to my dad, in wonder.
“No cane,” my cousin adds, “not even an arm to lean on.
How can I not boast about his age?…But it occurs to me, as he finishes his tea, mixed in with the boasting may be some more complex emotions.
Rather than pleased, my dad is frustrated, almost angry. He furrows his brow. “The last time I was here, it was so much easier.”
“Dad, the last time you were here, you were 20!”
I know this because my favorite photo of my dad was taken by my mom while he was packing up his Triumph motorcycle as the two of them headed to Clovelly, sleeping in cow pastures along the way.
My dad swats his hand at me and gives me The Look. It infuriates him when I mention his age to him or anyone else.
He’s on zero meds, still driving, volunteering every Saturday at church to feed the hungry, golfing with his good friend, lunching with the ladies from church, sending over one hundred handwritten Christmas cards every year, cutting the grass, trimming the trees, shoveling the drive, taking singing lessons, and making labor-intensive nightly meals for himself which involve roasting chickens and baking potatoes and grilling vegetables. In addition to our yearly trips to England, we’ve done three cruises where he’s gone on excursions through concentration camps, the hilly cobblestoned streets of Budapest, Prague, and Vienna, hopped on and off tiny rocking boats (tenders) that connect the big ship with shore, waltzed through the jungle and Mayan ruins, and at night wowed the ladies with his moves on the dance floor.
How can I not boast about his age?
But it occurs to me, as he finishes his tea, mixed in with the boasting may be some more complex emotions. My dad has twice had cancer, but it’s easy to forget as much because it left no apparent imprint on him. When he was in his sixties, weeks after surgery for colon cancer severe enough that my mom was warned he might not make it, my dad was golfing. The doctors were stupefied; this shouldn’t have been possible. Neither should be a 95-year-old man zooming down and up a steep cliff unassisted.
When he was in his sixties, weeks after surgery for colon cancer severe enough that my mom was warned he might not make it, my dad was golfing. The doctors were stupefied; this shouldn’t have been possible. Neither should be a 95-year-old man zooming down and up a steep cliff unassisted.
After I sustained a freak accident a few decades ago when I was 36, which resulted in a head and brain injury, I was left with an imprint that renders each day challenging. While I’ve healed beyond doctors’ expectations, my days are devoted to my health—supplements, acupuncture, chiropractic work, yoga, and more. I inch forward, sometimes striding radiant with hope, and then go sideways, or even backwards.
And yet, here is my father, a full head of grey hair, cracking jokes as the three of us make our way to the bottom of the path and weigh the incline that awaits us.
There have been days, weeks, months, even years where my own health has been terrifying. Times when I’ve needed to text a trusted friend, “Please let me know that I’ll be okay.” And they’ll respond: “You’ll be okay.”
And here is my dad, the sun bright on his face, the cold strong sea at his back, and he is those words manifested as a body. My DNA is fashioned from his. My blood, from his. My cells are born of his. His wise old body restores faith in mine.
“Ready?” I say, and my dad nods.
Up we go.