As the four of us baked like adobe bricks behind home plate at Comerica Park, the heat became difficult to endure. By the bottom of the fifth inning, with the Detroit Tigers again losing, 90-year-old Evie, her face cloaked by the wide brim of her sun hat, discreetly signaled discomfort to her boyfriend by tapping his hand.
The boyfriend, who himself will be a nonagenarian this August, sprang from his seat, perhaps the same way he jumped to attention when he served as a Marine sergeant in the south Pacific during World War II.
I watched the boyfriend, Sam Solomon, my wife's grandfather, escort Evie up dozens of stairs, which rose at a gentle angle, as she sought sanctuary under the overhang of the second deck.
"Do you realize how lucky you are?" I asked the last member of our quartet.
Matthew, my 9-year-old son, did not grasp the rhetorical nature of my inquiry. Nor did he appreciate the thoughts that spurred me to pose the question, which was a tribute to Papa, his great-grandfather.
In conversation rhythmically punctuated by balls and strikes and the shucking of peanuts, Matthew and I talked about Papa, about aging, about the fears it stokes and the challenges it so often presents.
I told Matthew that, when I was his age four decades ago, both of my grandfathers had already died, and my impressions of old age were colored by the decrepitude of the nursing home where my great-grandmother lingered in her slow motion surrender to death. Confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed by strokes, her powerless legs layered with afghans, her slurred words labored and ultimately indecipherable, Nanny belonged to another world, one whose landscape was barren.
To me, Nanny embodied old age, I confessed to Matthew. But you, son, will forever be guided and inspired by a wonderfully different example, by Papa's example.
Can, as Ansel Adams suggested, a single image define a life?
If so, an emblematic portrait of Papa in my mind may be one that depicts him standing ramrod straight, his arms folded across his chest, proudly watching a great-grandchild exhaust herself on a soccer field.
Many parents, aware of his age, invite him to sit in folding chairs they tote to their kids' sporting events.
"Oh no, thank you." Papa smiles, slyly but unambiguously advertising vigor. "I prefer to stand."
Papa is neither wealthy nor famous. I suspect his name has never appeared in a newspaper. Again and again, he climbs a flight of stairs to reach the humble second-story condominium in which he has lived for the last 40 years.
But, as the years advance, Papa's loftiness manifests itself. And we who surround him marvel, compelled to happily re-imagine our own futures uncorrupted by dotage and infirmity.
Throughout his ninth decade, Papa has acted as: caregiver and widower, steadying his wife of 64 years during her descent through the somber fog of terminal illness; social and political commentator, absorbing and contextualizing current events about which he voraciously reads; navigator, recalling with pinpoint accuracy the locations of whistle stops in the territories he crisscrossed, soliciting orders, year after dutiful year; tinkerer and repairman, dropping to his hands and knees, craning his neck, to inspect plumbing under his kitchen sink; veteran and historian, stoically depicting the horrors and heroism of a war that called on him to hopscotch islands soaked in blood; partner, relishing his fully-realized, modern and life-affirming relationship with Evie, a widow of four years; and patriarch, blessing the young with prayer and eulogizing loved ones lost with earnest reflection.
Writing about Greek architecture, the art historian Johann Joaquim Winckelmann famously observed, "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" begets greatness that both perseveres and reveals itself over large spans of time. Could not the same be said of Papa?
After our conversation, I again asked Matthew: "Do you understand how lucky you are?"
Matthew, a sensitive boy, nodded. I think he appreciated that Papa's very presence is a blessing, a good deed, a gift to all of us who circle in his gravitational orbit. He bequeaths a more optimistic future, a vision of our own potential for timeless dignity.
The day's heat broke. Shadows bifurcated the outfield. It was now time for Matthew and me to find Papa and Evie and head home.
We climbed the same stairs that Papa and Evie ascended earlier in the afternoon. As we neared the stadium's concourse, we saw Evie. She had found a comfortable seat perched in the last row of the lower deck, in front of a concession stand.
But anonymous spectators occupied all of the seats surrounding Evie. Where was Papa?
Our eyes did not search for long. We saw him standing ramrod straight immediately behind his Evie, his arms folded across his chest, the Marine sergeant forever on duty.
For more by Andrew S. Doctoroff, click here.
For more on aging gracefully, click here.