My father is seventy years old and last week he kicked my butt in racquetball. He moves around on that court like a much younger man, and he reminds you of that often as well. It is always humbling — and sometimes frustrating, to get outplayed match after match, but then I remember what a miracle it is that he is playing at all and that brings the magic of being able to play together right back.
In July of 2010 I woke up to a phone call you hope to never receive: your father is in the hospital and you need to get here fast. They lived in Anchorage and I lived in Wasilla, a town ninety minutes to the north with more than fifty-five miles of snarled rush hour traffic between us. It would be slow going to get there and it would not be made better by waiting it out. I flew out the door in a mess of unwashed hair and mismatched clothing hoping it would not be too late once I got there.
He had quadruple bypass surgery, an operation I have since heard referred to as the widow maker; I am glad I did not know it was sometimes called that back then. I lay with him in his hospital bed like a small child the night before, my youngest brother on the floor nearby; we had not done anything like that in a long time, him a teenager and me in my early twenties. We were so scared, so very scared, but though the odds I never worried we might not ever get to play racquetball together again. He bounced back from that surgery like it never happened and we did get back to the court in proceeding years. Then, everything got worse.
A few years ago, sometime in the fall, he said to me, “I think there is something wrong with me, I think I may have cancer.” Tests soon confirmed he was right. Prostate cancer, an ailment which will afflict one in nine men and which has a survival rate of more than ninety-five percent if caught early. These are promising numbers, and his was caught early, but it seemed that every other possible ‘check engine light’ in his body was coming on at the same time. He’d been battling diabetes and high blood pressure for years despite a healthy diet and lifestyle, and his doctors discovered serious peripheral artery disease in both legs not long after his cancer diagnosis. One night after leaving my parents house, driving home with my husband, I said to him, “I am worried we will never get to play racquetball again.” What I meant is that I was worried for the first time that we might be going down that road where adult children must accept their parents’ mortality. I was not ready to do that yet and it was so hard to stay strong while our family navigated his treatment and recovery. For more than two years our racquetball gear collected dust in a closet corner.
Then, last winter, he said to me, “I want to try to play racquetball again, let’s give it a shot.” His cancer was in remission and he’d received treatment for peripheral artery disease so there was no reason not to try, but I was afraid he would overdo it or worse that he would find himself no longer capable at all. I looked at him, excitement to return warring with no small amount of concern, and I said to him, “okay, Dad, let’s go at your pace, and let’s see how this goes.” It was slow at first, he was exhausted and frustrated and I was straining myself to be a vision of patience and understanding. He was annoyed his body would not move the way he wanted and that he was winded all the time, he said over and over that he wished he could get it together enough to give me even one challenging match, and all I could think was that we were on the court, that it was a blessing to have that time together and that opportunity, and that all the rest of what he was worried about did not matter. He was determined like a small child learning to walk, however, and through his perseverance his health and his quality of life changed before our eyes.
He has lost a tremendous amount of weight; his blood pressure and diabetes have both become more manageable; his outward appearance is much healthier and you can tell he feels better, too; he even bought this ridiculous plank board with an app on his phone that turns planking into a video game and by now he can probably hold that plank position for three minutes or more. With each new milestone passes, he will say to you, “hey, I held my plank position for even longer today,” with a huge smile on his face. Whenever we play racquetball now he makes more and more shots that require a level of fitness and agility he did not possess even a few weeks ago, and he says to me, “I bet we would win a father and daughter tournament if there was one, especially if we were classified by the age of the old guy!” I laugh with him at his joke but he is right. He is seventy years old and there is nobody out there moving like him. To have come from a series of devastating health setbacks to a level of fitness comparable to what some people enjoy in the prime of their lives is nothing short of a miracle.
How you treat your body as a young person will determine the number and degree of health struggles you will face as you age. My father will be the first to tell you he should have taken better care of himself when he was younger and that he is paying the price for his choices now. Eat healthy, exercise often, avoid anything your doctor says is bad for you, and in doing so you will be giving yourself a better shot at a longer, higher quality life. Even so, you need to know that aging is inevitable; we begin to age the moment we are born and it is a process that carries us through every stage of our lives right into the last. While aging is a part of living, one we cannot control, the act of becoming old is a personal choice. Each of us will face health struggles as we age, and they may even change the face of what it means to experience the highest possible quality of life, but even then we have a choice in how much we choose to let those obstacles limit us.
A body at rest will stay at rest; it atrophies, it misses out on opportunities because it will not move to the best of its abilities, not because it is not able to move altogether. A body in motion will stay in motion and no matter how much you age you can still move to the best of your abilities in ways that are most meaningful for you. Push your limits, try new things, set crazy goals, and do not allow anyone to tell you that you are too old to accomplish any of those things. Too old? Who says? Balderdash. Be determined and live out loud in a flurry of meaningful motion to the end of your days. If you are blessed with a body that moves never stop using it to celebrate life with the people you love even if that gets more challenging to accomplish or begins to look a bit different through the years.
I am proud that my father chooses to push himself to move even when the odds are against him and that he embodies the joyful defiance of yelling out: “too old, who says?!” I expect him to be kicking my butt on the racquetball court for years to come and I hope his resilience in the face of aging inspires someone else to strive for the same.