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Washington Voices

Age shouldn’t stop people from growing

Sat., March 15, 2014

Kids often get asked the same recurring question. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

When they’re little, the answer changes as fast as they grow. Artists. Musicians. Athletes. Teachers. Airplane designers. Ship builders. Cooks.

No matter how fantastical their aspirations, like colonizing another planet, it’s fun to see their eyes light up as they envision bright and promising futures. In the case of space exploration and domination, even the sky doesn’t limit their ambitions.

It’s also fun to watch them work toward goals that feel so far away. Math class is meaningful to the hopeful engineer. Rehearsals and practice time are important to the budding musician. Breathless hours spent dribbling and shooting feed the dreams of an aspiring athlete.

Now, as a senior in high school, my daughter is considering colleges and degree programs so that age-old question is forefront in our lives.

As she considers the possibilities and grapples with the question, I hope she doesn’t ever stop asking it of herself. We may stop gaining inches but we should never stop growing.

“What do you want to be?” is a good question for any age.

As I ponder that question for myself, my answer is more personal than professional. I’m happy in my career choice, though still striving toward unmet goals and greater skill.

But I have another wish I’m working toward. I’d like to be like Lucy when I grow up.

I met Lucy when I was in fifth grade, a stressed, prepubescent, awkward girl whose Grandma had just died.

My family was staying at my grandparent’s house with what felt like a horde of loving, grieving relatives. Overwhelmed, when my parents said my brother and I could stay at the house alone while the adults made final funeral arrangements, I was relieved.

Then Lucy, my grandpa’s first cousin, arrived and decided to keep us company. I was livid. I can only imagine the unfiltered glower I must have given her while I seethed at the imposition.

Then she won me over. I don’t remember the details of our conversation, only that she was positive, interesting, funny and an unexpected reprieve from sadness. She told stories. She listened. She made me laugh. She blew in like a spring wind and by the time she left I was glad she’d come.

I don’t remember seeing Lucy again but was impressed anew when my mom told me about a visit with Lucy shortly before she died.

Lucy was in a nursing home, physically dependent on her caregivers to meet every need, from toileting and bathing to eating. And while her mind was sharp, her memory was more colander than steel trap.

“Write down that you were here,” Lucy said, pointing at a notebook beside the bed and flashing a smile. “I want to remember you were here and enjoy your visit again.”

While they chatted my mom noticed how Lucy kept finding the silver lining.

She could have so easily complained. Her body was failing and her mind was slipping, but not so much she didn’t know it.

She could have griped about her aches, pains and loss of independence. But she didn’t.

“They take good care of me here,” she said of the nurses and aides.

She could have bemoaned the family reunions, weddings and funerals she didn’t have the strength to attend. But she didn’t.

“Thank you so much for visiting,” she said, instead.

My mom left feeling blessed. Lucy had shown what it means to age with grace.

Though I only spent an afternoon with her on a sad day when I was 10, I often think of Lucy when contemplating what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be positive. I want to be gracious. I want to find the silver lining in the clouds and see the good in people.

If it’s possible, I want to become a spring wind. When someone spends time with me, I want them to leave feeling better, the way Lucy made me feel.

But I only know one way to become that person in my sunset years, through practice.

Accomplished musicians must rehearse for countless hours; elite athletes must build strength, speed, stamina and skill through numerous workouts; and employed engineers must first spend years mastering the intricacies of math. Any dream worth pursuing takes a lot of practice.

For me, this begins with how I handle interactions and reactions in a myriad of little moments, day after day.

Whether I’m waiting in a slow-moving checkout line, preparing for inclement weather, adjusting to setbacks or conversing with someone who’s having a hard time, I can chose to look for something good, to listen, to show kindness, and to find the funny.

Some days my goal feels as far off as colonizing Mars. But just as I encourage my kids to work for what they want, I believe with enough practice there’s a hope that over the next four or five decades I can grow up to be a little bit like Lucy.


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