My Dad – In Praise of Nonagenarians

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My Dad – In Praise of Nonagenarians

By Julie DiBene

I was celebrating a birthday with my 91-year-old father recently and it struck me that as a society, we have a lot to learn about the aging population of Americans. According to one report from the U.S. Census Bureau, America’s population of persons aged 90-and-older has almost tripled since 1980, reaching 1.9 million in 2010. Moreover, that number is projected to increase to more than 7.6 million over the next 40 years. I am very lucky to count my dad among them.

My dad just turned 91 years old. He is physically frail but mentally sharp as ever despite having had brain surgery a few years ago after a seemingly minor tumble that left him with a life-threatening brain injury. That was about six years ago when he was airlifted to a hospital that had the expertise and equipment that could save his life and when the surgeon literally had to drill a hole in his head to relieve the pressure. My Aunt Karen, my mother’s best friend of more than 70 years and my godmother, had an absolute field day cracking jokes about my dad having a hole in his head.

What can I say, I was raised among people who all have a very dark sense of humor.

“…as I begin to age to the point of confronting my own mortality, my father has also become my friend.”

Looking at my dad now, bent with age yet determined to walk on his own while fighting constant balance issues stemming from brain surgery, strangers would not guess at his remarkable life. My dad has visited or lived in more than 30 countries, built huge factories that employed thousands in a dozen or more countries, and ran corporations across the globe. He encountered a real live witch on St. Kits, mastered Portuguese, hauled his wife and kids to live in typhoon-tossed Hong Kong, was aggressively propositioned by an amorous female sea lion while snorkeling off the coast in Carmel, California, and even dealt with CIA agents who wanted him to go undercover as a spy in South America under the guise of building companies and factories there. In short, my dad has had more adventures than most people could imagine in ten lifetimes. He fathered five children that I know of (there was, after all those wild pre-marriage years in the Navy), survived a wife of 57 years, and a daughter who died from complications of diabetes at the heart-breaking age of 24. He’s also raised a score of neurotic, slobbery dogs and somehow, as I begin to age to the point of confronting my own mortality, my father has also become my friend.

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Photo of my father, Brittany DiBene, and her cousin Justin DiBene as they sit enthralled as my father tells stories of his past adventures. Taken at my father’s residence in Olympia, Washington, Brittany (my daughter) and Justin (my nephew) are the two oldest grandchildren of which my father has five.

As the second daughter and child number two, I was basically the forgotten, invisible kid. My father was forever off in some random country building his legacy and yet another factory. We were not close to the point that when he was home, which wasn’t often, he would literally forget my name. To be fair, all our names started with the letter ‘J’ so he just ran through all our names until somebody finally answered. My father was also a by-product of his generation that did not believe in advanced education for women, though I can say he has long since completely revised his thoughts on that outdated notion. Determined to make something of my life, I worked multiple dead-end jobs and paid for my own college education. I went on to singularly work my way up the corporate ladder, without the help of his formidable contacts in the name-dropping high-tech industry where who you know is often more important than how talented you are. I am self-made, just like my old man, and the only child of his that never asked him for a cent or a career favor, something I am still exceedingly proud of.

Yet for all our similarities, we were still not close.

Then, eleven years ago, my mother passed away very suddenly, literally falling asleep on that fateful Thanksgiving afternoon and never waking up. My partner insisted he supports me by also attending the service. By then, my parents were also no longer close and in fact, we’re barely tolerating living under the same roof with each other. I’d been in a relationship with Bob for a number of years at that point but had deftly avoided introducing him to my relatives. Avoidance had become my middle name when it came to family. When asked, I would joke that I didn’t want to scare him off but in fact, I was only half kidding. Having learned to be independent of a very early age, the fallout from that was that I’d also learned to keep my distance both physically and emotionally. But we all came together to say goodbye to our mother, a difficult, narcissistic woman who had lived a life of ease and excitement herself, all thanks to my dad’s incredible talent and drive. To say that my partner was enthralled when he met my dad would be an understatement – why was I hiding him? He was fascinating, extremely intelligent, well-traveled. The short answer was my dad and I simply did not know how to connect with each other. For me, it was easier to stay away than to try and build a bridge with what amounted to as a virtual stranger.

My grandmother once told me he broke hearts all the way across the Pacific and I believed her.

My dad grew up in Salinas, California, and joined the Navy as soon as he could to get away from grinding poverty and unfortunate home life. He excelled in the Navy, becoming an engineer assigned to go from Pacific island to Pacific island ensuring that all the radio station equipment worked properly. Given the technology of the day and how it provided vital information during war and peacetime alike, my dad had a pretty important job. He proved to be very good at it and spent most of his free time in the company of the locals, preferring islanders to his fellow sailors — hence my joke about only knowing about five children he fathered. There could, my dad would say with a wry smile and a shrug, be more siblings out there. Tall and lanky with a shock of curly black hair and piercing blue eyes, my dad was a definite looker and quite the ladies’ man. My grandmother once told me he broke hearts all the way across the Pacific and I believed her. I suspect that behavior may not have changed all that much after he married my mother even though I also honestly considered my parent’s marriage none of my business. I guess I was more like my dad than I knew.

Once out of the Navy, dad took his GI bill and put it to good use, getting an education at San Jose State University. He wanted to be a journalist, a writer but was soon told by his academic counselors that his appalling lack of grammar and inability to spell made that all but impossible. So, he became an engineer, something he was naturally gifted at.

He was and is a genius. My father’s IQ has been measured in the stratosphere which has always made it hard for him to communicate with people. When trying to explain my dad to people outside of my family, I simply refer to him as ‘the original Sheldon Cooper’, borrowing a reference from the iconic character created by actor Jim Parsons on The Big Bang Theory.

And despite being 91 years old, my dad is still a genius, even though age has taken a physical toll on his once impressive athletic prowess. I know how much he misses surfing, scuba diving, riding dirt bikes, and even skateboarding. He’s done them all and with a proficiency that would make the Sheldon Coopers of the world green with envy.

“Your dad,” Bob has often said to me, “Is the real most interesting man in the world, not the guy in the beer commercial.”

Flying up from the Bay Area to the state of Washington to visit him on his birthday was a chance not only to hang out again but for my partner Bob to hear more of my dad’s amazing stories. “Your dad,” Bob has often said to me, “Is the real most interesting man in the world, not the guy in the beer commercial.”

Yes, I know.

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Dad and Jackie: Photo of my father and his beloved girlfriend Jackie, it is never too late to love again.

But what I noticed the most on this last trip was not so much his continued physical deterioration – there is always that – but the assumptions strangers make about old people. The elderly are often treated like they are feeble-minded, and seniors are talked down to like witless children when the fact is, most have simply slowed down a bit and need an extra minute to process things. When a hostess at a restaurant loudly asked my father if she could help him, speaking to him as if he was a clueless toddler, I didn’t even hesitate to jump in and rather sharply inform her that we would be wanting a table for three, thank you very much. I refrained from informing her that she was speaking disrespectfully to a man with more patents than she had tacky earrings, a genius with an IQ higher than she could probably count. This is my dad, the guy who redid all the electrical connections on my mom’s beloved Jaguar for no other reason than because he knew the gold plating was too thin to maintain the car properly in the long run. My dad, the same guy who could and often did, fix anything and everything. When his new girlfriend (an older woman that we’ve come to love as part of the family, not some young 75-year old floozy, mind you), was about to throw away an interesting holiday musical toy recently, the engineer in him could not resist. He ended up taking the toy apart, learning how it worked, going under the hood as it were. He took the entire thing apart, cog, wheel, and magnet, restoring it to pristine condition. While visiting him, he let me watch it rotate and play, delighted that I was as charmed as he was by the accomplishment.

The positive news is, dad finally became the writer he always wanted to be, taking classes in writing after he retired and publishing a number of articles as well as self-publishing a book. He’s working on a novel now. 

Reports say that the majority of people age 90 and over live alone or in nursing homes and have at least one physical or mental disability. Sadly, old age and disability still go hand-in-hand which means we are missing so much history, experience, and wisdom that comes with our growing demographic of nonagenarians. According to census data, 98.2% of all people in their 90s who live in a nursing home had a disability, and 80.8% of people in their 90s who did not live in a nursing home also have one or more disabilities. My dad now lives in an assisted care facility, still driving and as active as ever but like I said, age has slowed him down, if only physically which is how strangers judge him.

The positive news is, dad finally became the writer he always wanted to be, taking classes in writing after he retired and publishing a number of articles as well as self-publishing a book. He’s working on a novel now.

As a writer, dad is passionate about senior issues; delving into topics ranging from the socialization aging seniors must seek out for their mental health to the need for physical activity. He even penned an article about walkers that seniors use. He is, after all, still an engineer at his core, and his ability to understand how things work and how to fix anything and everything never ceases to amaze me.

My favorite article so far, however, is the one he wrote about flying kites. Ever since he was a little kid, my dad has loved to fly kites. I bought him a kite on our last trip to Kauai and he was delighted though the weather was too poor to fly it during our last trip. Instead, I bought him some books for his birthday on the subject of kites, including one meaty little tome on the actual physics of flying kites where the math was frankly way over my head. Knowing my dad, he will devour that book and become an expert on kite physics, likely redesigning the complex kites he has already built from scratch. My daughter humorously observed that her grandfather was the only person in the world who would love a book on kite physics for his birthday.

Ever the realist, aging, my dad says, is a process defined by giving things up. You give up friends because they die or move away, you give up sports because your body can’t do them anymore, you give up women because the lust fades, you give up everything one by one until you die, he said. As incredibly sad as it sounded, he said it without a trace of self-pity or emotion. My dad was never one for excessive emotions. Humor, however, he has in droves, from joking about the rotundity of our latest puppy (“But Dad, she’s only 87 pounds!”) to ranting about how god-awful my brother’s pedantic, profanity-laced annual Christmas letter truly is. “He thinks he’s being funny but he’s really just a terrible writer.” And I always thought my only brother was Dad’s favorite and could do no wrong.

“I think of death like I used to feel when I was in a new foreign country,” he said. “I’d have to learn the language, the culture, the people, everything was new and an adventure. I think death is going to be like that, a brand-new adventure where everything is new.”

Over the past decade, likely in no small part because my mother has been out of the picture, we threaded our way carefully into an emotionally secure relationship, one that we are both comfortable with. We get each other in ways that nobody (save my martini-toting Aunt Karen) does. We have such a long history, including those amazing years, we had together as a family living in Hong Kong when my dad actually did come home to his family every night. Because of this, he was the one I called when I returned to Hong Kong on a business trip a few years ago. Having gathered up my courage, I visited the hospital where I had spent months recovering from typhoid fever as a child. It was a Catholic hospital and despite the decades that yawned like an abyss between my visit and my childhood sickness, one of the (elderly, mind you) nuns actually knew who I was. She called my recovery a miracle from God. It was a tangibly powerful connection and a memory that only my dad could understand. My dad, ever the engineer, would go on to calmly explain to me the medical protocol the doctors used to save my life back then, drily pointing out that despite all the medical advances, the medical protocol remains virtually the same to this day. Technology, medical, mechanical, avionics…as long as it is rooted in logic and science, my dad is comfortable. His explanation, devoid of emotion, as to how I survived full-fledged typhoid fever also helped me make peace with the memory of being a small child, alone and terrified in an isolation wing for months on end. “You were too sick to know how long you were actually there,” he said calmly. I realized, despite the fear that memory wrought, that he was right. I was fine, I was a survivor. Moving right along.

 

 

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A lifelong agnostic, my dad is as comfortable talking about death as he is aging. I think he brings up the subject of dying to somehow comfort me after he is gone. Like my dad, emotions aren’t my comfort zone. But on this last trip, he talked about death in a way I found incredibly comforting.

“I think of death like I used to feel when I was in a new foreign country,” he said. “I’d have to learn the language, the culture, the people, everything was new and an adventure. I think death is going to be like that, a brand-new adventure where everything is new.”

But in the meantime, my dad is still here, still among the living even if strangers judge him by his age and not by his amazing life and accomplishments. And to those of us who know him, long after he has departed this earth for his next great adventure, my dad will always be the most interesting man in the world.

dadBIO OF JOSEPH THEODORE DiBENE

Joseph Theodore DiBene is a husband, father, pilot, windsurfer, motorcyclist, water skiing, scuba diver, chess club president, president, and founder of international manufacturing centers employing up to 4000 people. An international businessman, he has advised heads of foreign governments and major corporations. He holds 14 patents and raised a dozen dogs and five children all while working in 20 different countries and living in no less than nine.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julie DiBene is a high-tech communications executive working and residing in Silicon Valley. She has a BA degree in Journalism from San Jose State University, has published numerous articles and blogs regularly on the topic of frugal living: https://afrugallife.net/blog/

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