From My Perspective – 100 years young

100 is not a very large number if you are talking about money. It’s not a large number if you are talking about size or weight or some other measurement. If you are talking about time, however, 100 can be an amazingly large number, particularly if you are using it in the context of 100 years. This past year Canada has celebrated 138 years of confederation, and two provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, celebrated a 100 year anniversary. When we read about things that happened 100 years ago, it is difficult to get a sense of reality, though. It seems so long ago–especially if we’ve only lived a fraction of that time, or even if, like me, we’ve approached the mid-way mark.

This past year I’ve had the wonderful privilege to experience 100 years in a very special way. My grandfather has celebrated his 100th birthday! He is in excellent health, and seems like he could easily live another 100 years. But it’s really difficult to comprehend what exactly it means to live that long.

When I asked him, at his birthday celebration, just how it felt to turn 100, he said, “the same as it did when I turned 80…and 60…and 40…” by then I was chiming in, because I knew exactly what he meant. It really doesn’t change much. You feel the same inside. It’s only the outside that shows the change.

As befitting this very special occasion, my grandfather had two birthday celebrations. The first was sponsored by the senior’s residence where my grandfather lives, in conjunction with the Alberta government’s centennial celebration. The local MLA was in attendance, as were virtually all the staff at the home, and almost all the building residents. Family members were few, however, just including my father, aunt and uncle, and my daughters and I. This was partly because the celebration was held during a weekday when others were at work, but also because my father’s family is notoriously bad at communicating, and many of the family didn’t even know the first celebration had occurred!

The second was geared toward family, and my uncle made a real effort to locate as many of our scattered family members as possible to attend. Sadly, however, there is a certain degree of estrangement, and even at the second celebration many of the family were conspicuous by their absence. I know our family is not alone in this estrangement, but it’s sad, nonetheless. This was really brought home to me during the family party. When you live to be 100, you outlive several generations of family. My grandfather’s siblings are all gone, as are most of his peers, and several have passed away of his children’s generation. His first wife died long ago and even though he remarried (at the youthful age of 80 to his childhood sweetheart), his second wife has also passed. Of those who survive, children and grandchildren tend to scatter as they marry and create new and complex lives of their own. By the time it trickles down to the fourth and firth generation, we have lost many connections.

Of the family members who did arrive, it was a bittersweet experience to re-connect with cousins I hadn’t seen in over 30 years. On the one hand it was remarkable to realize how much we have in common, that familial thread of heredity that continues to connect us. My aunt, cousin and I all laughed when we realized that we all shared a particular trait of my grandmother’s — a tendency to bump into things and be covered with bruises without knowing how or where it had occurred! On the other hand, it was sad to realize how completely we’ve lost touch. Even though we all left the celebration with promises that we would call or write, we all knew that it was unlikely that this would occur.

An unusual family re-connect occurred quite unexpectedly at the first birthday celebration. The government MLA had arrived with two escorts. One of these, a middle-aged man, was in charge of taking pictures, and as he completed several family shots near our table, one of my daughters grabbed my arm. “Did you see his name tag?” she whispered, “I think he’s related to us!” I made my way over to where he was standing and confirmed the name on the tag. After a few moments of conversation, I confirmed that he was, indeed, a second cousin of mine on my mother’s side! Although we had never met, at least one member of our family had been in touch with him recently, a young cousin and contemporary of my daughters who is working on family genealogy. We exchanged email addresses, both somewhat bemused at the unusual circumstance of this meeting.

The first celebration was impressive. The banquet room was packed with residents & residence directors, who clearly had great affection and respect for my grandfather. They had prepared an elaborate celebration, complete with song. Tears came to my eyes as an elderly choir of wrinkled, white-haired ladies encircled my grandfather and began to sing “Let me Call you Sweetheart” in their aged, trembling voices. It was a touching moment, as the tune was one I had chosen to play for my grandmother at her funeral some 25 years ago. I don’t know why I chose it; some cellular memory must have identified it as a song that held special meaning for my grandparents. I remember sitting at the keyboard, my heart heavy with loss, unshed tears blurring the notes, yet determined to perform this final act of love for my grandmother. Then, as I began to play, I heard my grandfather’s voice behind me in the chapel, whispering to my father, “where did she find that? How can I feel sad when hearing that song!” His words comforted me then, and brought a smile to my heart. As the ancient choir’s voices quavered, I quietly sang along, and thought of my grandmother and the many wonderful years they had together. It is so rare that a married couple lives long enough to share many mutual anniversaries — and far more common that one partner, like my grandfather, ends up alone in the twilight years of life. I saw tears twinkle in my grandfather’s eyes as they sang, and I knew he was thinking of his beloved wife, gone these many years.

It seemed like “alone” became the theme of the day at both his birthday celebrations. My grandfather is so alone, even when surrounded by family and friends. Every so often he would go over to the gift table, perusing the few carefully-chosen gifts he had received (what do you buy a man on his 100th birthday, after all?), and I would notice him, seemingly lost in thought.

At one point my youngest daughter came up to me and we watched him, together. She commented, “that’s so sad”. And it was, strangely. We were celebrating the fact that he was a healthy centenarian, our beloved grandfather, great grandfather and great great grandfather. Yet it was so sad that he was alone, the only one left of his generation. In reality, living to be 100 is an amazing accomplishment. But it is a very lonely one.

My grandfather took the opportunity to share some words of wisdom at both celebrations. He said, “many people have asked me how it is that I’ve managed to live so long. I can answer that in one word: smile.” He went on, “Smile when you wake up in the morning. If you look out the window and its raining, smile–farmers somewhere will be happy! When you have a good day, smile. When you have a bad day, smile and look forward to tomorrow. Smile at people you love. Smile at strangers. If people upset you, smile. Smile all the time. Smile every day and you will live a long time.”

I believe my grandfather is right, and the scientists agree. A happy outlook on life is the key to longevity. It has worked for him. His positive attitude has kept him going through an incredible set of life circumstances, and it seems he’s set to go for a while yet. In spite of any loneliness in his life, or the aches and pains of a body that is no longer the same age as his mind, he continues to smile every day.

It’s a lesson I try to keep close to my heart. When things become too hard or discouraging, or when I feel like I can’t cope with one more problem or endure one more heartache , I remember my grandfather’s smile, the smile that has sustained him and empowered him to live 100 years!

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