All Thanks to a Borrowed Wheelchair

As some readers may know, I am seventy-one years old. My father is ninety-eight and, as he keeps saying, well on his way to ninety-nine. Inevitably, each time an event or feast draws near it automatically raises the question, will he make it? Each time he seems pretty sure he will; a hero, in his way.

Once a week I drive to Kfar Saba, about forty miles from where I live, to visit him in his assisted living home. There, taken care of by a nurse, he lives on his own, my mother having died a few years ago. The nurse, incidentally, is a very nice Philippine woman from Sri Lanka. That is because, in Israel, any foreign nurse is automatically known as “a Philippine;” never mind what country she is really from.

My visits last between two and three hours. Either I take him to the beach, which he loves and where he takes a nap while I go swimming in the surf. Or else we go to the nearby, well maintained and pleasant, park. Either way I have to push him in his wheelchair, given that he can only walk a few steps. The chair has been borrowed from a charitable organization known as Yad Sarah, Sarah’s Memorial. The reference, of course, is to the Biblical wife of Abraham. In return for a small deposit, they lend you the medical equipment you need. When you no longer do you can return it and get a refund. Many people do not ask for the refund, enabling the organization to survive. Some will donate money of their own.

Pushing a wheelchair, I have discovered, is great exercise. Suitable for the elderly, because it is not dangerous. Better than jogging, which I used to do for many years, because it puts no strain on your knees. Better than walking, which I have also been doing for many years, because it makes you use every single muscle in your body. Not just legs but back, shoulders, neck, and arms. Not to mention the heart-lung system that comes into action as you push the chair, and the person who is sitting in it, up a hill. The only thing that comes close is swimming; even so, wheelchair-pushing has the great advantage that it is simpler, logistically speaking.

Often we take a break and sit down on a bench. On other occasions we visit a café where we have a cup of tea or coffee. And we talk a lot. It was by listening to him that I have learnt a great many things I did not know. About how his father, my grandfather whom I can barely remember, never even got a high school diploma but was nevertheless fluent not just in Dutch, his native language, but in German, French, and later English as well (schools must have been better in those days). About how Opa van Creveld made tons of money by selling food, mainly meat, to the starving Germans during World War I, only to lose it all when he went bankrupt after the war had ended. About how Jeanine van Creveld, my grandmother, died when my father was sixteen as the result of a botched operation. About how, visiting Belgium shortly before World War II, he himself met two nice Jewish sisters. He immediately called his brothers, both of whom were considerably older than him, to come and size them up. Leading to two brides for two brothers.

And about the Holocaust, of course. About how, when the Germans occupied the Netherlands and demanded that all citizens surrender their weapons, he handed in the air gun he had been given for his Bar Mitzvah some years before. About how his father, my grandfather, found refuge with a young Dutch couple (he was a tram conductor, she a housewife; that is how things worked at that time), who looked after him. About how his older brother succeeded in reaching the Swiss border but was turned back by the Swiss police and, along with his wife, ended at Auschwitz.

How he, my father, himself found refuge with a farmer. On one occasion the farmer, who did not know he was a Jew, asked him to bring back a horse that was grazing not far away. Having been born and raised in Rotterdam, a large city, my father had no idea how to do it. The horse reared, forcing the farmer to send his son, a young boy, to complete the job. How he laughed, the farmer!

How he and my mother, who at that time were engaged, were caught up in the great Allied attempt to capture Arnhem in September 1944. They were taking a walk in the woods when they met some soldiers and started running away. “We are not Germans!” the soldiers called. They turned out to be Canadians who were happy to have a local couple show them the way. Unfortunately Operation Market Garden ended in disaster. The Germans brought in heavy weapons and defeated the Allied paratroopers, killing thousands and capturing most of the rest. As a result, they were able to keep control of the Netherlands for another eight months; forcing the population to go through the so-called hongerwinter (hungry winter) when tens of thousands, mainly the young and the old, died of starvation.

About why and how he took his family, including three little sons, to Israel in 1950. About what Israel, which had only gained its independence two years earlier, was like in those days. About, and about, and about. In return, I tell him episodes from my life which he did not know. Mainly such as are linked to my work and travels.

Two old geezers fondly reminiscing? Of course. But also the very stuff of which life is made. All thanks to a borrowed wheelchair.

In Praise of Old Age

I was born in 1946. That means that Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison—here listed in the order in which they were born—all were or are a little older than me. Now I am 69, which is a few years more than the character about whom, in one of their most memorable compositions, they sang:

When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I’d been out ’til quarter to three, would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?

You’ll be older too
And, if you say the word, I could stay with you

I could be handy, mending a fuse, when your lights have gone
You can knit a sweater by the fireside, Sunday mornings, go for a ride
Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?

Every summer we can rent a cottage
In the Isle of Wight if it’s not too dear
We shall scrimp and save
Grandchildren on your knee
Vera, Chuck, and Dave

Send me a postcard, drop me a line, stating point of view
Indicate precisely what you mean to say, yours sincerely, wasting away
Give me your answer, fill in a form, mine forever more
Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?

illustration_to_the_beatles_song_when_i__m_64_by_martinduefert-d5ff6xrThey wrote and performed the song, and I first listened to it, back in 1967. At the time my own parents were in their late forties and being sixty-four years old seemed so far away as to be almost inconceivable. Here I want to address the question, to what extent did the Beatles’ expectations—happy expectations—match my experience?

Thinking about it, I must say, to a very large extent. To proceed in reverse order, yes, my wife of thirty-something years is still with me. We keep nourishing each other in every sense of the word—day by day, week by week. Yes, we have several darling grandchildren, aged 11 years to six months, on or near our knees. Yes, we rent a cottage every summer—not in the Isle of Wight, mind you, but in Potsdam near Berlin. Luckily we do not have to scrimp and save for doing so.

I do work in the garden, a very small one to be sure, and I do dig up weeds. Dvora does knit a sweater occasionally (most of the time she paints). We often go for drives on the weekend, either taking a walk somewhere or visiting friends and relatives. We do enjoy anniversaries, birthdays, greetings, and a bottle of wine. And, yes, I have lost practically all my hair.

But there are also some differences. Turning around 180 degrees and proceeding from the beginning of the song to its end, normally it is she and not me who does most of the minor technical jobs that have to be done. She is also the one who deals with the occasional help we need to do work we cannot do or can no longer do; such as, for example, re-painting the townhouse in which we live.

The most important difference, though, is that, at sixty-nine, I do not just potter around. Instead I work harder than ever, writing one book after another. The reason why I do so is because I enjoy writing as much as, or more than, I have ever done. And the reason for that is because old age, in spite of all its problems, often brings in its wake certain kinds of freedom younger people cannot readily imagine. That includes freedom from the need to constantly worry about one’s offspring, who are now adults and fully able to look after themselves. Freedom from the need to please employers and/or clients; freedom (in my case) from publishers, given that I can post anything I please on this blog or on; and, finally, the freedom only the knowledge that death is no longer so very far away can bring.

And then there are the things that did not happen. True, physically neither of us is what we used to be. Where the lithe woman I once met? Where is the athlete who used to run miles and miles up and down the hills around Jerusalem, feeling like a god as he did so? The answer, in both cases: long gone.

On the other hand, neither of us is “wasting away” either. Perhaps that is because, over the last half-century people’s life expectancy has gone up by almost a decade. If so, bless the doctors, bless the pills, and bless whoever and whatever is responsible. And yes, we do suffer from some ailments—Dvora more than I—which the Beatles did not mention. However, to-date these are comparatively minor matters. All in all, “Who could ask for more?”

And that, all you hard-working, stressed, twenty- thirty- and forty-somethings with mortgages to pay and kids to raise, who worry about what life may have in store for you when you are sixty-four, is why I am writing in praise of old age.

Your old age, I hope.