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Discovering hidden treasure in the elderly
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You know you’re getting older, when your childhood icons all pass away.

I hadn’t realized that Art Linkletter was still alive.  Having watched him in my childhood get kids to say the “darndest things”, having enjoyed his Christmas specials, I’d figured he just faded off into anonymity in old age.

Last night, I saw a photograph of him standing beside John F. Kennedy, already looking like a senior citizen.  It took me back fifty years in time.

The news surprised me.  Wednesday, at 97, the kindly man at last returned to his maker.  His son-in-law testified: “He lived a long, full, pure life, and the Lord had need for him.”  Friday, I felt ashamed that I hadn’t honored his memory by at least wondering aloud whether he were even still alive.

I should have been prompted by recent news that the last of the Cartwright clan had passed away.  Pernell Roberts, the oldest brother of the Bonanza trio, followed Hoss and Little Joe January 25th at the age of 81.  Now the heroes of TV’s longest-running western (after Gunsmoke) were history.  

It was easier with George Burns, who in 1996 died a centenarian.   He had returned to the spotlight at age 79, resurrecting his career and igniting a few thousand more cigars - and outbursts of laughter - before passing on just one and a half months after reaching 100.   The Jewish kid who lost his father at the age of seven and began working so soon afterwards went to his reward, having spent 93 years of his life making other people smile.

My mother’s mom lived in Boston to the proud marker of 92.  Still clear as a bell, still smart-witted and capable of taking control, she’d commanded our respect 4,000 miles away in Seattle.  And on my father’s side, longevity was even more familiar.  His aunt lived on a commune in New York State until she died at 101, and his parents enjoyed over thirty years of retirement in San Diego.  They both departed after attaining 97, Grandpa still lucid.

Mom’s heart condition has been now characterized as an “atrial flutter”.  At 82, she’s not going to let this slow her down.  She informed me last night from Bellingham that her doctor is laying out treatment options - some shock treatment that’s 95% guaranteed to succeed, should she accept the risk.  We’re not quite sure what happens to the other 5%.  “We didn’t go into detail about that,” mom said.  “For the time being, he’s put me on medicine.”  This means she’ll be flying out to the rustic summer cabin she and her sisters have frequented since childhood.  Last summer, despite the interminable rains, she spent months there, far from city conveniences.

What got me on this meditation on senior citizens and the death-and-dying of elderly people were a convergence of many factors.  On the one hand, I’d just eaten, for the first time, Moose Tracks Ice Cream.  Visiting “Old Saint Mary’s Church” in San Francisco, getting some ideas about how our sister church was retrofitted and reinforced following the catastrophic earthquake of 1906, and again just a few years ago, I sat down to dinner with the priests in residence.  For dessert, I chose gelatin over the richer chocolate fare.  But something inside impelled me to do the unthinkable: I took a scoop and sat back down.  Why, I didn’t know.  I don’t eat ice cream.

“This stuff is really good,” I had to confess.  “It’s called ‘Moose Tracks,’” the pastor of fourteen years informed me.  I stopped dead, you might say, in my tracks.  This treat had been my father’s last request before he died.

There, in the rectory of a church finished in 1854, the elder sister of our church, which was completed in 1861 and is the valley’s oldest surviving brick and timber house of worship, I was connecting back to my dad, in whose image I seem more and more to have been made, remembering the last meal he shared with my mother, his wife of 56 years, at the age of 82.

Another influence in my meditating on the last things of life was the fact that we celebrated five funerals this past week in our parish.  The youngest to die was a six-year-old boy who’d suffered a chronic genetic condition.

The oldest was Modesta Medina.  I’d met her the week before in an area hospital, as she prepared to meet her maker.  In the end, she would spend the entire Pentecost novena, from the Friday after Ascension to Saturday before the birthday of the Church, in a long, drawn out struggle not to go.

Having lost her husband in 1951, when Art Linkletter was just getting off the ground and I Love Lucy was just beginning to air on CBS, she brought her children north from the heart of Mexico to singlehandedly give them all the opportunity of a better life.  Her generation was remarkable in having learned to adapt to the life and language of this country without losing the most vital elements of their own.  In fact, she ran a Mexican restaurant for twenty years, and was, in the words of her silver-haired son, “the best cook in Stockton.”  Her business was just down the street from our church, a block south of today’s Greyhound Station, now just history.
It was demolished during the construction of the Cross Town Freeway.

At her graveside, people began to talk.  “Father, they told you she was only 103.  That’s not really true.  Her cousin is 102, and he says he remembers as a child that she was already older.  The Social Security Administration representative told us that’s she was probably born in 1899.”  Hmm. 111.

“Children,” I repeat over and over at funerals and in Sunday’s mass, “don’t ever think you don’t have anything to learn from your elders.”  The silver-haired ones in our midst are sources of endless stories that tell us about who we are and why we are here.  They paved the way for our generation and tilled the soil that fed our families, fertilizing it with their blood, sweat and tears.  They built and ran our factories, schools, and cities.  They knelt to worship in the churches they watched being raised up from the earth.

As we watched Modesta’s coffin slowly lowering into her grave, I felt as if another chapter were being closed in the ongoing masterpiece that is the history of this great nation.  With her, she took memories spanning over a century that will never be recovered.  Sure, we know she saw her universe evolving from an agriculturally based subsistence to extreme technologies which no doubt she couldn’t even begin to comprehend.  More importantly, she left behind a legacy that deserves to be studied and to be carried on.

Once the coffin rested in its place and flowers adorned it from above, I looked up to ask the inevitable question: “How many tortillas do you think she made, or at least heated up, in her lifetime?”  Silence followed, with some quiet chuckling, before one of her family chimed: “Millions.”  Yes, the stack would no doubt tower clear up to the Moon which was waxing once again toward fullness.  Yes, her tortillas would climb even to the stars.

Please take time, as we focus on our youth in their graduations and their church-based ceremonies, to remember the older ones.  They often settle back silently, allowing the world to run along at its ever-accelerating pace, content to take second or third place, or simply to fade away into oblivion.

God forbid we should forget the ones who made our lives not just better, but, in the final analysis, possible.  They deserve better.  In a society so obsessed with perpetuating youth and idolizing all that is young and new, we’ve got to accord our elders the respect and reverence that is their due.

Fr. Dean McFalls, St. Mary’s Church, Stockton, CA  Friday, May 28, 2010