A subtitle to this blog should be “perceptions”. I have now been at the Palm Springs Air Museum over six months, two more than planned. But events and circumstances being what they are, I remain stranded. What I could perceive as a failure for moving on, is mitigated by outside circumstances and new opportunities.
One opportunity has been to get to know some of the docents better. With the summer season upon us and visitor traffic down, there’s time to talk more at length. This morning, a distinguished USAF retired Colonel who works a couple days a week in the B-17 hangar, was seated alone, the three other docents in the area, seated in the nearby cafe.
I always took Dean as someone a bit aloof, not so much in attitude but my perception. That word “perception” throws people for a number of reasons but over the years, I’ve learned that what we sometimes see (read: mostly) about someone else is usually false. Our own insecurities can trip us up.
A few weeks ago, the woman docent, in whose house I’ve been boarding, bought and read Dean’s self-published book about his experiences in wartime Korea and Vietnam. Several days she read tidbits from Dean’s book. One morning I used that as an opportunity to initiate a conversation with him about publishing. The barrier dissolved.
Today, seeing Dean sitting by himself, I approached him and asked how he was. It was not a platitude. I meant it. “How are you?” I asked looking him squarely in his eyes. Little did I know where his response would take us.
“I’m so tired. I was ready to leave here and go home about fifteen minutes ago,” he said. I asked why. What I heard caught me off-guard. Dean described a wife who among other physical ailments, suffers from dementia. I was surprised and asked him how old he was. Shocked at the number “83”, I told him his youthfulness belied that. I couldn’t imagine his wife being anything but similarly buoyant. It was hard to imagine such a vital man, shackled by a life at home that’s eating away at him. “How do you cope?” I brazenly asked. “It must be hard.” This former Air Force Colonel who dealt with blood and guts multiple times in service, was sinking into his office-style chair, defeated. Dean went on to describe the pain and frustration of coping with someone he’s lived with for over fifty years, turning into a stranger. “I get so angry and frustrated when our conversations go round and round. I say something and she asks about it five minutes later. I know I shouldn’t get mad, but some times I can’t help it,” he said. The vision most young married couples have at the alter of gracefully aging together, in reality, is more like the battle-scarred plains of war long left behind.
Aging was a theme I was recently hearing from other docents. Talk of home life comes up in the most unusual ways. Bob, another octogenarian, told me how he used to do volunteer work a few evenings a week. “I had to stop that recently,” he began. “I can’t leave my wife alone anymore. She’s bed-ridden and the nightly desert winds scare her.” Asking how long this has been going on, he replied “Eight years.” No complaints. It was just the way it was. Again, here was a man, youthful in attitude and life perspective, now coping with a spouse who was demanding more and more of his time and mental energy.
Someone once said “Aging is not for the faint of heart”. I am witnessing this all around me. I realized that for some of these people volunteering their time at the air museum, is time away from the reality at home and a reminder of a time when their vitality was as strong as the warbirds some of them flew. War for many of the older generation was about good vs evil, saving freedom and protecting the innocent. It was dirty and messy but their youth kept them hopeful. Now they face a war of a different kind and for many, it’s scarier than anything they’ve faced before.
A wife and docent whose husband also volunteers time at the museum, told me matter-of-factly that she was diagnosed with Alzheimers. What upset her most were the number of doors of former friends, shutting her out. Their ignorant fear of somehow contracting it abruptly ended years of friendship.
“Til death do us part”, that abstract concept when young people marry, has now, in some of these lives, returned to collect on that vow. Dean, wearily admitted that hospice may be a next step, sooner than planned her doctor had told him. “That to me is even scarier than this,” he said sadly. “I don’t know how I will handle that.” Death will, at some point, come to collect all of us. What is it like to be at that stage? A man I once felt resistance from, shared a bit of his heart and soul with me today. “How are you?” is a question that will always carry weight.