My grandfather had a small stroke last week and now one of his ankles is paralyzed. After a depressing day or two, he got a splint and is, by all accounts, quite happily mobile again. Gran was a doctor and has always looked after himself quite well — a brisk walk each day after lunch, a balanced diet, all his shots, quitting smoking at 80, etc. but I think genetics are primarily responsible for his living to this ripe age of 96. His sister, Shula, is still alive too, despite a several-pack-a-day habit.
Gran more or less retired when he was around seventy and has filled the last quarter of his life by writing every day. He writes stories, essays, observations, and his memoir (three times). He writes so much, in fact, that he has worn out a half dozen word processors (he’s not a computer man) and produced enormous stacks of work, many of which he has hand-bound with shirt cardboard and wrapping paper.
For most of his life, Gran certainly never would have called himself ‘a writer’. He was a doctor — he got his degree in Germany in the early ’30’s, then, when Jews weren’t allowed to practice medicine under Hitler, he went to Rome and took his degree all over again; then he fled to India where he and my grandmother had a practice in what became Pakistan for 35 years or so, and finally moved onto his current home in Jerusalem. He and my grandmother published a book on diet in the late 1940s but I have never heard that he did anything but work at medicine until he retired. Still, his passion for writing seems like something that must have alway been burning deep inside him. As soon as he earned the luxury of spare time, he didn’t head for the golf course or the local saloon. He started to write. Early in the morning and late at night, his fingers clattered over the keys, and the piles of paper began to stack up.
I tend to think of 9/11 as this enormously defining moment, one that has made me reconsider the possibility of a long life. Seeing the Twin Towers collapsing a mile from my home flicked some switch deep within. Ever since, like many Americans, I have assumed that life suddenly became a lot more finite.
Gran lived through 9/11. He also survived the Flu epidemic and World War I. He lived through the Holocaust (but many of his relatives didn’t). He survived 6 years in a British internment camp where he and my grandmother, mother and uncle were incarcerated because they were of German origin. He survived the Bangladesh War which split his adopted country. He endured the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, just to the west. He lived though Yom Kippur War in a bomb shelter. He made it through the Gulf Wars when Scud missiles were aimed at his home; his gas mask is still in the coat closet. He survived the endless Palestine-Israel conflict – the barbed wire and barriers are visible from his living room window. He survived the death of his wife after more than a half century of marriage and partnership. And despite all of that, he is still here, in his walker and splint, keys still clattering.
How long will your life last? Have you got seventy five years left? Or a day? So what are you waiting for? When will you allow yourself to be creative, to be the person you have always wanted to be? Can you overcome the trauma of the news and have faith in the future? Can you make things not to be famous (Gran has no books on the bestseller list) or rich (Gran’s writings haven’t earned a shekel) or influential (Gran has had a half dozen readers at most) but just because you must? When are your keys going to start clattering?