On being 80, socially distant and grateful

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

According to the Torah, Moses was 80 years old when he led the Israelites through the 40-year Exodus out of Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land.  Now I am 80 years old and while I would not try to compare myself to Moses, our Greatest Prophet who lived 120 years, I do have a degree in philosophy and I have had plenty of time to ponder deep questions during two months of self-quarantine because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Actually, my own stay-at-home routine started a month before the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. In early March I suffered a fall that resulted in me hitting the back of my head on our concrete driveway. With a scary amount of blood spilled, I was rushed to Missouri Baptist Hospital’s emergency room. There was no concussion or fracture, thankfully, and my scalp wound was stapled together. I am all healed now — it could have been a lot worse. I’m grateful for the excellent care in the ambulance and ER. I’m now doing physical therapy (at home) to regain strength and improve balance.

Just as I was nearly ready to return to work at the Jewish Light, the pandemic hit. I suddenly found myself with a combined reality of having the entire country also being home bound; in my case, I would isolate with Barbara, my wife of 54 years.  

You’d think after five decades of marriage we would be all talked out, but I am grateful that we have had more time together than since we were dating.  Barb is a fantastic cook, so mealtime is a daily highlight, and we have had lots of quality time together.  

Barb and I have come to appreciate our shared values and to count our blessings out loud every day. Our three kids and five grandkids are healthy and we hosted a Zoom seder, which was festive, fulfilling and fun. We spent a warm and wonderful Mother’s Day social distancing at our son and daughter-in-law’s home with our three in town grandkids and got Zoom greetings from our daughters in Maine and their spouses.  All are doing well for which we are thankful.

I have gained a renewed appreciation of the myriad chores Barb performs that keeps our meals varied, healthy and delicious, and our household stocked with everything we need. 

Every day Barb brings in our Wall Street Journal and later goes to World News in Clayton for our daily “fix” of the New York Times, USA Today and the Post-Dispatch.  I am still an old school journalist who likes paper editions.

We take turns reading the Wall Street Journal, putting checkmarks on articles we like, especially Peggy Noonan’s weekly column.

We also love the cartoons in The New Yorker and the funny and tender comic strip “Pickles” by Brian Crane in the Post-Dispatch, which pokes spot-on fun at “our” generation of “geezers.”

Barb and I have also enjoyed working on crossword puzzles, trying to outsmart the experts on “Jeopardy” and a nightly session of the game Rummikub, a cross between gin rummy and dominos. Barb usually wins, but I’m learning a lot about strategy.  I would do better at Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit.  Having a routine of fun things to do as well as work and limiting time watching bad news on TV keeps the days from slip slidin’ away.

We have also binge-watched the wonderful Ken Burns series on the Roosevelts and marveled at how TR, FDR and Eleanor overcame severe personal challenges to provide urgently needed leadership. We wondered why we don’t find comparable leaders today when they are so desperately needed.

At the age of 80 I now really “get” the expression “old age is not for sissies.” Each week one or two close friends die.

When I lose someone whom I have known for years it feels like a gut punch.  Recently I lost a dear friend from my Washington University days. We had plans to meet “soon” at Yen Ching on Brentwood.  It hurts to lose dear friends and cousins, but it comes with the territory of being 80-plus I suppose.

I have tried to reach out to long-time friends just to see how they’re doing.  I recently emailed some former Jewish press colleagues I had not spoken to in years just to tell them how much I still care about them.  I also got in touch with one of my former religious school students who has become a successful attorney and mom.  

I tell people in my life how much I care about them.  Like the song says, “Shower the people you love with love.”  I make it a point to thank the cop who guards our temple as well as the rabbis, cantors and teachers who are our spiritual first responders at this stressful time.

I’m grateful that after 51 years at the Jewish Light I can do most of my writing at home on the tiny keypad of my iPhone. Zoom has been an elusive challenge for me despite hours of tutorials, including one by the best possible software teachers — my son and grandson.  Maybe I’m embarrassed to show up on screen looking like one of “The Three Stooges” — bald on top with enormous shaggy sidelocks!

My colleagues have taken pity on me and are getting me a Chromebook. Oy — another piece of technology I’ll need to learn.

Yes, I get scared and sad during this time of crisis and relentless bad news.  Putting it bluntly I might be 80, but I am not ready to get sick and die!

People my age and older are not expendable and nursing homes have too often become isolated death farms.  Action must be taken to honor and protect our aged.

But despite the aches and pains and losses of growing older, I am filled with gratitude for the abundance and blessings in my life and remain confident that we will get through this and emerge even stronger when this vicious plague is vanquished.