Yet Another Life Lesson From My 91-Year-Old Dad


Monday was my father’s 91st birthday. It was a weird celebration. He’s living in the care center portion of a Wisconsin nursing home, while my mother lives in the next building, in assisted living. My mother doesn’t need assisted living, but she wanted to be near him, and the apartments section was full.

Her gift to him this year was supposed to be a wedding ring, to replace the one he lost in the sheets the first week he was there. And I know what you’re thinking, but he does take it off and play with it, so we’re giving the staff — which is excellent — the benefit of the doubt. Plus, it’s Wisconsin, the “Take Responsibility State.” No one accuses anyone of anything. Lawyers are starving to death statewide. Wisconsin feels that if you take off a ring to play with it, you’re going to lose it in the sheets. Just don’t do that! But no one tells a 90-year-old anything. A 90-year-old will listen to what you say, nodding politely (or maybe nodding off to sleep) and then do what they want. So, he lost his ring.

Mom still drives her car and could’ve gone out ring-shopping but “The COVID” put a stop to that. So, my brother and I managed to present her with a number of options by mail, none of which was perfect, and she picked out the one that would fit him.

Now the big question was how to get it to him.

The assisted living people are no longer allowed to go to the care center and vice versa. No outside visitors are allowed in either place. My dad doesn’t even have a phone (his choice) and yes, we have begged him to get one, but, as I said, 90-year-olds do what they want.

So, mom’s plan was to call his nurse and have her get dad out to the building’s balcony while mom stood on a nearby patio and my brother stood in the parking lot. Then the nurse would hand him his gifts (which had been brought over from mom’s place by another nurse, then disinfected), and he’d unwrap them while mom and David sang “Happy Birthday” at the top of their lungs.

The plan worked, despite the fact that, being Wisconsin, it was 39 degrees outside. The three of them stood there shivering, safe from COVID-19 but not frostbite, and then dad went in to have cake. I called him through the phone at the nurse’s station, and he was all aglow.

“Happy birthday, dad!” I yelled. (Dad is not hard of hearing, but it seemed more celebratory to yell.)

He thanked me and, as always, I was happy to hear that he’s doing great. Then he said something I’ve been longing to hear. “I have big news,” he said.

To me, “big news” means he’s walking again, he’s moving in with mom, a cure has been found for COVID-19 — something like that.

But dad’s big news was that the care center chose him as “Resident of the Month,” took his picture and hung it up in the hallway. He was giggling.

Once I dialed back my expectations, I was happy for him.

Then I realized this was something we’re all doing right now — dialing back our expectations. If we do it right, we’ll be as happy as a 91-year-old “Resident of the Month” on his birthday.

Another life lesson I’ve learned from my dad.