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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

How a group of senior singers gave me the power to feel young

Nov 30, 2022 11:54AM ● By Colleen M. Story

Playwright Eve Ensler said, “I wake up every day and think, ‘I’m breathing. It’s a good day!’”

If I wake up with a headache, I want to go back to bed.

I have an excuse. My headaches can be bad. The kind where the invisible vice of misery locks onto your ears and slowly squeezes your brains out. I inherited them from my mother.

She visited me last weekend. I couldn’t wait to spend time with her, so I filled our schedule with fun activities. We had breakfast at a local pancake house, saw a music performance, returned for dinner at my favorite Mexican restaurant, enjoyed a few laughs watching a movie and topped it all off with a delicious piece of pie.

I later learned she’d had a headache most of the day.

“You should have told me,” I said. “I would have given you time to rest.” 

“Oh no,” she said. “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.” 

Is there a generation gap in how we treat life’s inconveniences?

Last week, I took a break from TV and drove to the local theatre. They were showing a film called “Young at Heart.” It’s a documentary about a senior citizen singing choir from Massachusetts. The average age is 80. 

Wrinkled and spectacled and toting bottles of medication—some with oxygen tanks—about 30 members shuffles into an old music room that reminded me of my high school band room. (White-walled, spacious, dotted with rickety chairs.) Under the leadership of a gifted, mop-headed director, they rehearsed their songs. After weeks of practicing, they performed a few gigs in the U.S., then jetted off on a European tour. 

At most, I expected to feel bemused. What else might one expect watching grandmas and grandpas belt out unlikely tunes like James Brown’s “I Feel Good”? 

Instead, by the time it was over, I’d gotten a powerful jolt of energy as if someone had hooked me up to a joy IV. Watching them thrive in the midst of their age left me feeling bold. I wanted that energy. 

Ron, one of the members of the group Young at Heart, reminded me of my uncle, Max. 

Max didn’t like to sing. At least, not as far as I know. He was an old-fashioned Colorado cowboy. I always remembered him with a gentle smile creasing his lips as he watched his horses. Sometimes, he’d do something crazy, like walk up to a new colt and pull his tail. 

Just last week, Uncle Max passed away. He’d been struggling with all kinds of ailments: Congestive heart failure. Cancer. Hip replacement. We rarely heard about them. Instead, when we visited him, he told us stories about how he’d built the screen at the local drive-in theater. How his strapping filly had won her first race. How he’d teased my aunt about losing her sunglasses, before adding a few off-colored jokes for good measure. Uncle Max was living life young. 

Eighty-year-old Ron had endured five bouts of chemo. Five. 

His doctors said anyone else would not have survived them. But I’d have never known if the filmmaker hadn’t mentioned it. Ron was always smiling, encouraging the others, raring to go. For the song “Yes We Can Can” by the Pointer Sisters, Ron was the first to memorize all the repetitions of “can” in the lyrics. If you know the song, you know that’s no small feat.

Another choir member, Bill, a soft-spoken tenor, had spinal meningitis. He’d survived three episodes of his priest reciting his last rites. He staggered to rehearsal even when he could barely walk and practiced his part in a soulful duet. Later, lying in a hospital bed, he kept a poster advertising the upcoming concert on the wall. Inspiration to get better in time.

Popcorn salty on my lips, I watched this ordinary group of seniors battle all the things we worry about in life: sickness, disease, pain, discomfort and the gradual wearing away of abilities. They didn’t complain. They didn’t sequester themselves off in their easy chairs or their beds to suffer away. They made it to rehearsal however they could. They practiced. They struggled with rhythms. They tried and tried again to get certain lines right. When they lost two important members of the group the week before their big debut, they went on to perform to a sold-out audience. And they had that audience on their feet, dancing and crying tears of joy.

I think I know why these seniors are full of life. By the national average lifespan, if you’re 80 and you’re a woman, you’ve got about six months left to live. If you’re a man, you can go anytime. Suddenly, it’s real. It’s an expiration date we can get our minds around. When there are only so many months left, every day carries more weight. Every morning is a gift. We finally realize life is about finding joy, whatever it takes. 

Fortunately, so far, I don’t have cancer or heart disease. I can do whatever I have a mind to do. Odds are I’ve got at least another forty years to enjoy, but I often find myself complaining. Gas prices are too high. I can’t seem to find my soul mate. My bank account is low. My lawn tractor isn’t working. Maybe I need to change my perception.

I woke up this morning without a headache. Pressing my finger to my neck, I felt my heartbeat there, steady and strong. As I looked out my window on another beautiful day, I realized: this one isn’t going to come again.

I may have what seems an astounding 14,600 days left, but after midnight tonight, that number will drop to 14,599.

I got up, singing, “Whoa, I feel good!” 

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