The day of my birth has passed, and I recovered from it better than I think my mother did 75 years ago. After all, my birth took place when the medical belief was that a heavy dose of anesthesia was the only sane way for a woman to give birth. While we were both certainly groggy after the event, I like to think that I recovered quicker than she. However, that was in the short term because my mother showed me many times by her example how to continue in the longer span of living.
In that last sentence I struggled with the best word for “continue”, and I am reminded of the dedication to me that Reynolds Price wrote in his book, Letter to a Young Man in a Fire: “Persevere, my friend.” And Reynolds knew what energy it took to continue in life. Yet, like the good writer he was, Price used the best word—persevere. So, looking over the years of my 75 that I know, I think that I have persevered. Fortunately, I have not had to (choose a synonym): endure, suffer through, persist, or survive any of them.
I have not endured these years because that implies too much suffering, and while I, like everyone, have had my troubles, I have not had so much trouble that I have had to endure any of it. I have not had to suffer through anything over these years. That verb phrase, too, implies a horrible period or experience that one is barely able to “get through.” That, indeed, would be an awful ordeal. I have not had to persist, except in some of my wrestling matches when I was much younger, and in some of the marathons that I raced twenty-five years ago. While persisting in those was a great help, they were more or less recreational choices of mine, and not necessaries for living. To persist suggests that one is facing a long and arduous time and wrestling matches and marathons are brief when held up in the light of life. The last, survive, fortunately is not what my life has required. To survive tells of an escape from disaster or some other horrible event. Fortunately, no event during my lifetime has been so awful that I have been required to survive it.
When I worked in Pembroke College, Oxford each summer, I would shop in a favorite haberdasher’s on Turl Street for some ties. For several summers I encountered the same salesman, and we would chat. We both enjoyed the yearly exchange, and when I entered the store after an accident that made me a paraplegic, he asked about things, and we talked as I chose ties and as we continued talking, he shared some of his experience as a child during the London Blitz. When my shopping and our talk was finished, he said as he placed my purchases in a bag, “Well, get on with it.” His words are such an accurate description of Reynold’s word, persevere, and a good philosophy.
Yet, none of the verbs or verb phrase that I have written of can be done alone. To persist, endure, or persevere one needs family and/or friends. And when I look back over my years, I see many faces of folks who have believed in me, supported me, and trusted me. For instance, yesterday children, grandchildren, siblings and friends sent me good wishes: some cards, many phone calls, and several emails celebrated the day of my birth. All of those folks and others have made my journey better and even, at times when I needed their support, possible.
75 is not that big of a number, but when placed as an adjective for years, it takes on a new dimension. William Wordsworth writes, “The good die first,/And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust burn/Burn to the socket.” Many years later, Billy Joel writes a hit song, Only the Good Die Young. Both are mistaken, but the image of a youthful death has romantic overtones for some folks. They, too, are mistaken. However, when I look at my years and realize that I have had three times those of John Keats or Wilfred Owen, I shudder. Why? Because I wonder if I have done justice with the gift of all these years. And it is not just Keats or Owen that I think about when I count my years. I think of my friends who died much too early of disease: Hooper, Jim, Connor, and Willie. Each died twenty years before they reached my 75 years, and while I am grateful for the additional twenty I have been blessed with, I tremble that I have not done my best with them. I can now only hope that I have.
Once some years ago when we lived in the Shenandoah Valley, my wife Mary Ann met a man who was selling a truck. As they discussed the vehicle, he shared some of his life story. In telling her his age he said, “I’m 85. I don’t’ know how that happened.”
Indeed. That is, I believe, perseverance.