When my soon to be 92-year-old father-in-law moved to a Mennonite assisted-living center in Goshen, IN three years ago, he called in his 80-something brother-in-law and a much younger son-in-law to help build an oversized desk and lots of shelving for his laptop, books, a printer and the vase with my mother-in-law’s ashes.
Papa John wasted little time in setting up an office in his modest one-room apartment. He had much to do — track trends of the futures market for his own investment strategies and draw a house plan for a family in Africa.
He quickly made friends with other residents, but when they began dying off he turned to the center’s employees for conversation. Now he especially enjoys talking with the beautiful young Eastern European women who work as servers in the dining hall because they tell him about things not discussed on the evening news. Conversations about their customs, mores, ambitions and dreams. Conversation that help to keep him connected to the larger world.
In the Virginia home where Papa John lived most of his life, his dining room wall was plastered with a National Geographic world map. It was there that he and my mother-in-law hosted lively Sunday dinners for family members, church friends and newly arrived emigrants from Albania and Laos. And it was at that table that he learned to speak conversational Laotian.
At his 90th birthday party, my father-in-law announced to his children that he was starting life anew. He went so far as to say, “It saddens me to think of all the funerals I’ll have to attend.” He looked from one adult child to the next. All nine of them.
Less than an hour later, his children had created a death pool and drawn names to see in what order they would all predecease their father. Most of them share his sense of humor, especially Chris, one of the sassy and delightfully twisted instigators, who takes her dad to Walmart and a local diner every week where they discuss, in addition to his shopping list, the insanity of American politics at home and abroad..
At that 90th birthday celebration, one of the center’s employees gave Papa John, whose only taste of liquor occurred 71 year earlier, a bottle of Sangria. Because he had read the benefits of red wine, he tried it. And liked it. In the days that followed, he drank a half-cup each morning with his breakfast until it was gone, then resumed doing so again when his stock was replenished at age 91.
These days he takes no prescription medication but believes dark chocolate is a daily “vitamin.” Every so often he calls me and says he has run out, knowing that I will send his favorite brands — Dove Bliss and Reese’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups — which he shares with his visitors, always sending extras home with little kids.
Sometimes he mails me copies of his blood work. On the desk in front of me is a recent one that shows his cholesterol is in range. On that same sheet, scribbled in large print, is his blood pressure — 120/70.
Fifteen years ago a doctor told him he had the heart of a 25-year-old, and he reminds us of that often. But even though he spends 25 minutes, twice a day on a stationary bike, his legs are not so young. He walks with a cane, one of his own design. It’s made of PVC pipe. At one end is an ell-shaped handle so he can hang it on the edge of a table. The other end is four-pronged so it can stand upright. Other features include a magnet for picking up dropped paper clips and a tine for stabbing paper debris. His cane fascinates the center’s residents, some who want their own, and strangers at fast food restaurants to whom he gladly demonstrates its features as his sausage biscuit and free senior coffee cool.
Among his other creations are a pencil extender to increase the life of a nub; a specialty paper tray for home/small business printers; methods for more efficient construction estimates; and a steel leg for a friend who damaged his own in a accident. The last was a prototype that needed further tweaking. No matter. His buddy was too scared to strap it on.
A compulsive problem solver who wakes up thinking, “What if. . .,” Papa John is now working on a design for affordable, prefabricated living space that would allow persons on the low-end of the economic spectrum to afford their own 700 sq. ft. homes. Floors could be added as families flourished.
The reason I’m writing about my father-in-law, other than the fact that I’m crazy about him, is that I recently watched the documentary, Happy, which features interviews with academics at U.S. universities and regular people in Denmark, Okinawa, Japan and elsewhere.
According to the film, the unhappiest people fall into three groups:
1. People who work so much they have no time for leisure, family or friends. As an example, the film cites Japanese businessmen.
2. Those on a hedonic treadmill who always WANT/NEED to have the next, big thing. Look around. We all know someone like this. Or perhaps we are like this. (But I’m not. Really.)
3. Members of fringe groups who fear or dislike outsiders. Think White Supremists. Evangelicals, such as snakes handlers. Or mountain-bound conspiracy theorists.
And what makes for a happy life? According to experts, four conditions:
1. Regular physical activity that raises feel-good dopamine levels,
2. An appreciation for what one has (which is easier when one’s basic needs are met),
3. Close friends, family members and an involvement with community, and
4. Compassion and service to others.
When I finished streaming Happy on Netflix, I thought of my father-in-law who gave up his home and car at age 89 and moved from a Virginia community he’d known for most of his life to a final one in Indiana. Those changes alone, especially the last, are enough to send most people into a downward spiral.
Yet he continues to thrive. He wakes up every morning, looking forward to his day, happy.