Life is full of surprises, and if you live long enough you’ll see just about everything.
My father celebrated his 90th birthday last weekend, and when it comes to surprises, he’s had more than his share.
Who could have known that he would outlive the country of his birth (Yugoslavia)?
Who could have guessed that he would slip through the mortar and pestle of communism and fascism during World War II, and wind up living into a comfortable old age on the rocky coast of Maine?
And how could he have known that the son who never cleaned up his room or did his homework would end up with a semi-respectable job in a daily newspaper?
You just never know what might happen.
My father, Veselin Kesich of Scarborough, has experienced all these things and more in his 90 years on our planet. He tried to tell me not to make it a big deal, that he’s had so many birthdays that this was nothing special.
But birthdays are not like zucchinis, where each one is less valuable as the crop gets bigger. When you know that there can’t be many more, every trip around the sun is worth celebrating.
So we got together last weekend in a small dining room in his retirement community, where he had dinner with both of his children and his three teenage granddaughters.
You hear a lot these days about people living longer and more active lives, and some baby boomers have the idea that they’ll be running marathons in their late 80s. That might be happening for some, but not my dad.
For him, a walk down a long hallway is a lot of work, and his hearing makes it hard to follow a conversation even when he wears his hearing aids, which – as the people who try to work in my office when I talk to him on the telephone will tell you – is not often enough.
It’s been a long journey, and he’s tired.
The people who remember him as a professor, an expert in New Testament theology from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, might notice that the words don’t fly as fast as they once did and the topics of interest are not as voluminous as they were when every story in The New York Times could be the subject of a discussion.
Now a lot of his news comes from the cable networks, usually with the sound off, and he tries to make sense of the flood of images.
“Tell me something,” he says. “This Lindsay Lohan, is she in a lot of trouble?”
Yes, I said, even though I haven’t been following the story very closely. She seems to be ending up in court more often than anyone could be really happy about.
He shook his head slowly and frowned. “Who is her father?”
Who indeed? Apparently someone has come up a little short in the advice and guidance department.
But I don’t know if you can blame her parents for that. My father gave me two pieces of advice that I’m glad I ignored.
Having come of age in World War II, when Europe was torn apart by politics, he advised, “Never tell anyone who you voted for, and don’t display any sign of your party.”
I’ve managed to avoid party politics, but telling people how I vote (and why) is kind of my job.
And when he sensed that a young woman was breaking my heart, he took me aside and gave me a piece of old Serbian folk wisdom: “In the sea there are many fishes.”
Fortunately, I kept pursuing that particular fish and she has become my wife of 23 years.
At his birthday dinner, Daddy took us by surprise and offered another piece of advice, this time to the teenagers at the table:
Soon you will be going away to college, he said (more or less. I wasn’t taking notes). You will be exposed to many new ideas. That’s very important. We need new ideas here. We need you to come back and introduce them to us. Your community needs you to do this.
But when you come back, don’t be harsh. Express them with “fear and trembling” so people will listen.
Other people (like me) talk faster and more. But they don’t get the attention that 90 years of experience demands, and there was a silence as the words sunk in.
I thought of the young man who left home in 1941 and was never able to return. And I thought of the old man who has lived long enough to say goodbye to most of the important people in his life.
It’s a series of leave takings and learning new things, and if you’re lucky, coming back and making sense of what you’ve seen.
It was his party, but no surprise, he gave more than he got.
Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org