A Second Chance Life

For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be … I hope you live a life you’re proud of. And if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again. Benjamin Button

My father worked well into in 90s, a contribution and connection to the outside world he was fiercely proud of. I remember a Thanksgiving dinner where my half-sister offhandedly referred to Dad as “no longer working.” His response was swift and firm. “I am not retired, Sheila.” Dad was 88 at the time.

Even after Dad closed his office on Meridian Avenue, just a mile from our house, and moved his real estate development business into the den, he continued to maintain the rhythm of his younger days. Rising daily at 6:00 a.m. A trip to the front door in his navy blue terrycloth bathrobe to gather the San Jose Mercury, San Francisco Chronicle and The Wall Street Journal from the porch. A few choice words muttered under his breath for the paperboy if any were on the brick path instead. Thirty minutes of exercise. A hot shower. Breakfast with Mom at 7:30 am as they read the stack of newspapers. A quick trip to the bathroom to floss and brush his teeth before installing himself at his desk by 9:00 a.m.

I no longer remember exactly when Dad shut down his company, partly because he maintained his informal clipping service for the family until a few months before he died at the age of 102½. Carefully cropped and curated articles for his children, his niece and her husband culled from the vast array of publications he read daily, weekly and monthly. In addition to the morning papers, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Time, Business Week, Forbes, Commentary and The New Yorker. Articles on the real estate industry for my sister. Articles on startups and high tech for my husband. Reviews of traveling exhibits or forthcoming books on renowned artists for his niece. Articles on the law, lawyer jokes and general business for her husband. Workplace, leadership and strategy articles for me.

The articles arrived twice a month, neatly folded into bright white #10 envelopes, addressed in Dad’s flowing handwriting. Each with the publication and date underline or noted at the top. Key passages underlined in red.

Many of the articles Dad sent me are long gone, discarded as I ran out of space or the subject matter became dated or no longer relevant. But one fat manilla folder, crammed full of yellowed articles, remains. Columns by Herb Cain in the San Francisco Chronicle, Donald Kaul in the San Jose Mercury or Page Smith in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Gems Dad chose just for me on how to live a rich, full life; the joys of old age; how to stay focused on who and what matters most.

I’m told that my father became a different man when at 56, he met my mother on a blind date, fell in love and married her a year later. That he walked away from a prior existence that had been focused on amassing wealth, buying new cars every two years, being part of San Jose’s high society. The death of his first wife three years earlier had upending everything, leading Dad to build a new life focused on Mom, me, their only child, and a few chosen friends and family members. Satisfied to arrive home from the office every day in time for 6:00 pm dinner and a quiet evening with Mom watching carefully chosen PBS programs or reading side by side in the family room. A life where he was content, grateful for what he had.

Dad never said much about his life before he met Mom, but I got the impression that he spend those years worrying … about status, money, position, never fully trusting those in his social circle to have his back. That those years were full of unhappiness, fear and pain. Or perhaps he was too busy thinking about what was next to pause and appreciate what he had.

When Mom, who was 22 years younger, first raised the possibility of them having a child together, Dad said ‘no.’ He was 59 and had two grown children from his prior marriage. He worried he wouldn’t be around to raise me and, truth be told, I don’t think he relished the idea of sharing his new wife with anyone else. I don’t know what changed his mind. Maybe it was because Mom wanted two children, and they “settled” on one. Perhaps he wanted another opportunity to parent, a chance to make up for some of his regrets from the first time around. Or maybe he just wanted to give the person he loved most her heart’s desire. I asked, but could never get a straight answer.

People used to ask me what it was like growing up with a father in his 60s and 70s. I don’t remember ever being aware Dad was that old. He worked full-time, taught me to ride a two-speed bike, helped me with my homework, showed up at my school performances, took Mom and me on vacation. Other than his bald head rimmed with gray hair, he seemed just like my friends’ dads. It wasn’t until I got out of college that I understood the magnitude of his decision to raise a third child so late in life. Why he’d had the desire and energy to pay attention, be present, listen to what I had to say. Why he had such fierce appreciation for his second chance life.

Dad used to tell me that I kept him young. He taught me that old age is something to be embraced, not feared. That it’s worth striving for. That it’s never too late to start over or begin again. That what I will remember, if I am lucky enough to live as long as he did, will not be the money I made or what I achieved but the weight of my son asleep on my shoulder or the warmth of my daughter’s hand as we crossed the street.

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