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It had been a productive week. I got a lot of work done, including splitting and stacking several face cords of firewood. It was no wonder I went to bed with a few stiff and sore muscles. The next morning, I slid out of bed. My back was still stiff when I bent over to get my slippers. I wondered, "Did I move that much wood?" Then it hit me like a ton of bricks; smacked me right in the face, "Dude. You're sixty! It might just be old age." I didn't feel sixty, but then again, I've never been sixty before. I had no idea how it should feel. I was a little confused, almost like I was in the Twilight Zone. I needed some confirmation and orientation.
I went to the bathroom, put on my glasses, and picked up my cell phone. "6:37 a.m., November fifteenth. Yep. It's my birthday." I had planned to welcome sixty with a cup of Norseman Grog, watching the sunrise over Lake Superior. With rain and snow falling from a completely overcast sky, I wouldn't be seeing the rising sun on this birthday. I cleaned my glasses with the bottom of my T-shirt, put them back on my face, and looked in the mirror. "Glasses." Sigh.
I remember when I first got glasses as an adult. I was having a little trouble reading, mostly at night when I was tired. The optometrist prescribed reading glasses. Several years later, I found myself using the readers more and more, even when I wasn't reading. Eventually, I needed a little correction all the time and something a little more substantial for reading. After wearing spectacles for about ten years, Dr. Mark suggested bifocals. "Bifocals?" I questioned his absurd comment, then laughed, "I don't think so."
He suggested bifocals again at each of my annual eye exams over the next four years, but I consistently refused them. He finally asked me, "What is your aversion to being able to see well?"
"Bifocals are for old people, and I am not old!" I adamantly told him. "I'm barely in my fifties!" Mark had a good laugh about that, then explained he had patients in their twenties wearing bifocals. "Really?" I raised my eyebrows, quite surprised. I agreed to bifocal contacts, "But not glasses. Those are for old people, and I am not old." I smiled, recalling that visit, then put my glasses on to look in the mirror.
Examining my face, I found no new wrinkles. Oh sure, my crow's feet were still there, but I'm rather proud of them. I didn't get them squinting at the sun; I earned them by laughing – a lot. As a matter of fact, I prefer to call them my laugh tracks. Rows of horizontal lines run across my forehead, but they've been there for as long as I can remember. I got those by raising my eyebrows.
Over the years, I've had many brow-raising experiences and surprises, some good and some bad. Some amazed me while others frankly scared the daylights out of me. Having three daughters caused my brows to rise quite often. It also happened while flying airplanes, driving fast cars, riding motorcycles, running up and down rivers in a boat, and riding my Jet Ski. I’ve been blessed with so many experiences, I could write a book – actually several books about them all.
In the mirror, I noticed a small cut on my head. I banged it while stacking firewood. I started talking to the man in the mirror. "Back when you had a full head of hair, no one would have noticed a little scrape on your noggin, but with all that bare space…" I laughed. The man mimicked me and laughed back. "It's not funny," I told him. "It is so," he argued. "Oh my gosh. I'm talking to myself, and he's answering!" I quickly put toothpaste on the bristles, brushed my teeth, then straightened my hair on the sides of my head. My hair has been slowly departing since my late thirties, but I still have over half of it, so I'm doing okay. I got dressed, ready to go to church.
The readings were about a master entrusting his servants with talents. Father challenged us to ask ourselves, are we best using the God-given talents our Master has entrusted to us in serving one another? It was a good sermon prompting me to do some personal soul searching.
When I got home, my wife offered to make breakfast; I told her I wanted to cook. I would use some of my talents to serve her, even if it was my birthday. I made scratch buttermilk biscuits and gravy while she prepared the table in the dining room. She placed a birthday card in front of my plate. A large box was in the chair to my right and a whole onion was sitting on a placemat. I don't know; maybe she was going to ask me to cook something else later.
After breakfast, I opened the card. It was very cool. Melissa has a knack for choosing very thoughtful, meaningful gifts. She had bought the card over twenty years ago and kept it, waiting for the right person to give it to. "You're that person." She said. That made me feel very warm and fuzzy inside. She said to open the present. I reached for the big box. "No, the smaller present with the bow." She said. I started laughing as I remembered.
A year or two ago, I gave her a present, but I didn't have a bow – so I put an onion on the gift box. "That's a bow." I said, explaining, "An onion has many loops just like the ribbon that makes a bow." I noticed a flat bulge; something was under the placemat. I lifted it to find a book: Gone…But Not Forgotten; Ottumwa, Iowa in the twentieth century.
I opened the book, where she placed a note marking page 174. It was a nice feature on my dad and his positive impact on the city. Of his forty-one-year career in radio broadcasting, Dad had spent twenty of them in Ottumwa.
I smiled, reflecting on the good times I had both working with and learning from him. Dad taught me that radio was about serving the public; your community. He did that exceptionally well, instilling that talent in me to carry on in my thirty-five-year broadcasting career. Melissa and I spent the next hour or so looking through the book together; then, it was time to open the big present.
I cut the top open. Inside was a ton of plastic packaging. After digging through the large air pouches, I pulled out something rectangular wrapped in large bubble wrap sheets. "More layers." I smiled, thinking about the onion. I carefully unwrapped it and found a beautiful watercolor painting.
I recognized the piece as being the talent of Richard Dutton, one of our favorite artists. Richard was Melissa's art instructor in college, as well as a good friend of my family's for decades. Although I knew it was his work, I didn't recognize the scene. It reminded me of a road on the Arrowhead Trail in northern Minnesota, but I don't know that Richard had ever been there.
He titled the painting: "Lake Wapello Trail." She liked the image because it depicts a place from where we came, southeastern Iowa, and also looked like places in northern Minnesota, where we live now. The fact that Richard created it made the artwork much more meaningful for both of us. It was a special gift that we will proudly display on our dining room wall.
Melissa and I spent the rest of the day lounging around the house. All three daughters and our two granddaughters called to wish me a happy birthday. We had homemade potato soup for dinner, then shared a slice of rich, dark, chocolate birthday cake for dessert. Afterward, we retired to the living room to enjoy a local brew and conversation near the hearth of a warm fire. Our dog, June Bug, and cat, Edgar Allen, took advantage of the woodstove's heat; it was an opportunity for a well-deserved evening nap.
Later, as I climbed into bed, I thought about my life so far, the person I have been, and who I am now. I considered my blessings and talents. Am I using them in the best way possible? Could I use them better in serving others? Much like the scene in the painting, where I came from looks a lot like where I am. I wonder what it will look like where I am going?
As I laid there, it occurred to me; my back hadn't been stiff throughout the day except right after I got up in the morning. I guess it wasn't old age, after all. "It must have been all the firewood I moved." I smiled, giving thanks for the gift of my good health as I pulled up the covers. "Sixty is going to be a breeze."