Blessing and Curse of 54

December 11th, 2011 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

I’m not huge on magical numbers, good or bad. There are primes I simply like the look of, like 17, but I don’t ascribe power to any set of integers.

wandacollegeThat written, a few coincidences have been obvious in my family. There’s the space of 24 for one. My mother’s father was 24 when she was born, as she was 24 when I was born. That certainly came to mind when a women I was living with became pregnant when I was 23. Had she not had an abortion, over my objection, I would have been a dad at 24. I did not even think keeping the series running. Yet in retrospect, I was not mature enough to be a dad then, and maybe barely when my first son was born when I was just short of 31.

Now 54 wasn’t all that remarkable for me, but for both Granddad and Mother, it was intense…24 years apart.

Granddad found agony, tedium and enlightenment. Mother was physically, financially, emotionally and even geographically upended, with some permanent negative effects. For them, 54 was a very big deal.

Backyard satori

At 54, Granddad had forced prolonged meditation. He found enlightenment in the backyard on South Marsham Street in Romney, WV.

He was in a cast from one heel to his waist. Though a railroad yard foreman, he was impatient when his crew could not uncouple a pair of recalcitrant train cars. In the process he fell between them and found his leg and pelvis crunched, broken in three or four places (I forget the detail).

While healing and immobilized, he would hobble on crutches to the yard and read under the gigantic maple tree. He went through the perhaps 100 or more books in the house, all of the Reader’s Digest copies they’d kept for decades, and some public-library books that his wife brought home. He planned his vegetable and flower gardens and enjoyed the small plots in the back. Then he thought.

Years later, I asked him about his calmness confronted with difficult people (often my grandmother, his wife).  As it turns out, he was dying when I brought that up when he was in the VA hospital for a double hernia operation. I had no inkling that the post-operative effects included some floating blood clots that did him in shortly after.

For many reasons, I’m glad we had the conversation. He first smiled the gentle, beatific grin I associated with him — all kindness and humility. He said that his calmness was relatively recent. It turns out that it happened when he was 54 and confined to the yard. After exhausting the reading material and his desire to divert himself through print, he mused. He would think and feel with open or closed eyes. He said those years later that it just came to him one day, both intellectually and emotionally. Somethings mattered and other things did not. If his wife or someone on his crew or another in a story said or did something nasty, it did not affect him, not in anger or spite or sorrow or any other negative way. He said it really wasn’t a mental decision so much as an awareness. Since that moment, he lived that.

So there was my 70-something Granddad saying (in my words) that he had an enlightenment at 54.

For me, struggling with my own adulthood and not so calm in the presence and actions and words of difficult people, I had a sense of relief as I digested this lawn magic. I had long emulated and admired him, but did not see a path to his equanimity. That was particularly important as he played the father role for me. My parents had divorced and my father and his almost immediate second wife went off to Germany, had a couple of sons, skipped on required support payments (the Army would not enforce the court ruling) and did not contact me for 20 years.

So Granddad was it and he did a fine job…other than being an impossible role model. After our conversation about the backyard awareness, I came to see that he was not only 48 years more mature but that he had also arrived at a place most of us never do. So, I could relax a bit and stumble (with some of my own meditation) along finding my own manhood, husband role, fatherhood and work interactions. Whew.

Far too much to handle

Alas though, my mother Wanda had a 54 harder than broken bones. Among her year were:

  • She and a lover were very happy with each other in every sense. Then his ex-wife started a new court action, wanting double alimony and child support. He flipped and fled to someplace like Singapore to wash that wife out of his hair. Wanda was suddenly solo, from joy to loneliness.
  • Her pharmaceutical employer sold itself to pharma giant Schering-Plough, which in effect said, “Love your gynecological products, but we have a sales force.”  They gave each rep a bag of money and a bum’s rush. She found herself unemployed, with six months to invest that money or lose much of it to taxes, and in effect forced to activate her eventual plan to move to Santa Fe to retire with her sister (head nurse at the Indian hospital) over a decade before she wanted to do so.
  • She found a lump in a breast, which turned out to be malignant and affecting lymph nodes as well. She was likely to die shortly.
  • She flew to Santa Fe, where a trusted surgeon friend of her sister Peg did a radical mastectomy/lymphectomy. Then she returned home with half a concave chest and a course of toxic chemo and radiation in the works. She was supposed to die within five years, in the spin-the-wheel medical odds game.
  • As medical wisdom (oxymoron) had it at the time, cancer for a middle-aged woman meant stopping all hormones immediately. She had experienced a strong menopause, and as a result other medical wisdom had her taking lots of hormones. The sudden halt brought a personality change, a negative one, in which my ever objective and patient mom became, to hear my chums and coworkers tell it, just like their moms — short-tempered, sharp-tongued, fault-finding, and even politically conservative.
  • She (rather we, as my 7-month pregnant wife and I loaded up her physical world in Pittsburgh into a U-Haul truck and led her in her car to Santa Fe, to the house she bought with the money for the two of them) went in great distress to a future seemingly out of her control.
  • As she settled in, my sister and her daughter figured this was a great time to leave her bad marriage. She showed up with two young kids. And baby makes five.

Granddad had a much better 54 than Mother did.

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