Last week, I made a strong suggestion that everyone add "Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old" by John Leland to their must-read book list. Thanks to his series in The New York Times, I'd been aware of his yearlong project following the lives of six elderly New Yorkers (the "oldest old," i.e. those over 85), but I still wasn't prepared for the positive impact his collective essays in book form provided.
Today — thanks to Leland's book — I'd like to introduce you to Fred Jones, an astonishingly upbeat 88-year-old African American man. Jones is a World War II vet and retired civil servant who, because of his pensions, falls within the health care "donut hole" that makes him ineligible for much of the care he needs and deserves. Jones has a weak heart, diabetes and, even though his mobility is severely compromised, lives in a third-floor walk-up. Years ago, Jones had convinced himself — and asked God to make it possible — that he would live to be 110 years old. He starts off each day grateful that he has lived to see another sunrise, and when Leland asked him what was the happiest period of his life, he answered, "Right now." Leland, who was wrestling with a number of sticky personal problems at the time, admits that out of the three women and three men he "monitored" for a full year, Jones "was the first" to cheer him up.
Back when Jones was born in Philadelphia (in 1927), the life expectancy for African Americans was under 50. Now in his late 80s, he was happy to share his life story with an inquisitive New York Times reporter. Jones' father died when he was 2 1/2 years old, and his mother (a seamstress) and grandmother (a house cleaner) worked hard to support him. When he got out of the military, he went to college on the GI Bill and became the first member of his family to earn a college degree. One of his first goals had been to throw away all the homemade underwear that his grandmother had made for herself and buy the nicest replacements he could find for her. But she died a year before his graduation, and as soon as he landed his first job, that missed opportunity to repay his grandmother for all of her kindnesses inspired Jones to send his mother money every month.
Leland was astonished at Jones' ability to feel fortunate in spite of the hardships he had to face on a daily basis. He was estranged from five of his six children, and the daughter who was supportive was battling serious health issues of her own and rarely able to visit or care for him. He was unable to clean his small apartment, and climbing the 37 steps to his front door became more difficult with each passing day. And yet, Fred never surrendered to depression or victimhood.
In Leland's words: "Here was a lesson in giving up the myth of control. If you believe you are in control of your life, steering it in a course of your choosing, then old age is an affront, because it is a destination you didn't chose. But if you think of life instead as an improvisation in response to the stream of events coming at you — that is, a response to the world as it is — then old age is more another chapter in a long-running story."
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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