My father was a brilliant surgery resident at the famed Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA when he was oh, probably, 27 years old. He ended up specializing in and completing another residency in family practice (long story!) by the time he was 31, or thereabouts. Coming from relative poverty, a loveless and sometimes-physically-abusive home, and facing anti-Semitism growing up in the 1950s, I remember him telling me “I went off to college at age 18 with only a suit.” As in, no money, no furniture, no books, no nothing. My father busted his butt and was an admired and even loved physician in the rough part of L.A. when I was growing up. He was asked to be the head of four Kaiser Permanente when he was, oh, about 40. Instead, he opted to remain at Kaiser-Montebello and be the Physician-in-Charge at that clinic. Mort Merchey spoke Spanish with probably 50 percent of his patients—who always remembered him generously during the Christmas holidays. As if that weren’t enough, he also was a Captain in the Reserve Corps of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, a huge organization. My pop knew how to shoot his Magnum .357 as well as any uniformed deputy could. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he did pretty darned well, considering where he came from. He makes me look like a slacker in comparison, that’s for sure! He was smart, good-looking, funny, amiable, and competent. Driven to school in his true-blue Mercedes convertible in the mornings, needless to say, I had the greatest respect for my dad’s professional and educational achievement.
This story does not, however, have a happy ending. My dad suffered greatly in retirement. This happens with many people, perhaps especially those who are like him.
My father never adjusted to retirement. That is, he had to stop working not because he felt he was ready, or his career was “complete”, or anything along those lines. He had mental health problems, and the divorce he and my mother initiated in about 1990 sent him into a spiraling anxious depression.
He tried going back, but it didn’t take. I know what he was experiencing: he couldn’t concentrate because of self-esteem, co-dependency, and loss issues. My father knew that he was one mistake away from a devastating lawsuit for medical malpractice – as all physicians are, I suppose. As Kaiser was pressing him not to do this test or to get patients in and out in ten minutes or whatever, the opposing force was “Do not make a mistake or you will be up Shitt Creek.” It was a spot that was figuratively between a rock and a hard place. He just couldn’t take the stress and the pressure.
It’s a horribly sad story.
His retirement got progressively better, and he also met a nice woman, Suzanne, whom he married and was pretty happy with. They were actually a great pair—one might say “meant for each other.” But that feeling of “being a doctor”—which was a pretty big deal back in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s—eluded him henceforth.
Arthur C. Brooks, in a wonderful piece in The Atlantic (LINK) writes the following:
“One might think that gifted and accomplished people…would be less susceptible than others to a sense of irrelevance [and lack of meaning and fulfillment as they age]; after all, accomplishment is a well-documented source of happiness. If current accomplishment brings happiness, then shouldn’t the memory of that accomplishment provide some happiness as well? Maybe not. Though the literature on this question is sparse, giftedness and achievements early in life do not appear to provide an insurance policy against suffering later on.”
“In 2007, a team of academic researchers at UCLA and Princeton analyzed data on more than 1,000 older adults. Their findings, published in the Journal of Gerontology, showed that senior citizens who rarely or never ‘felt useful’ were nearly three times as likely as those who frequently felt useful to develop a mild disability, and were more than three times as likely to have died during the course of the study.”
Brooks points out that:
‘Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy,’ Alex Dias Ribiero, a former Formula 1 race-car driver, once wrote. ‘For such a person, the end of a successful career is the end of the line. His destiny is to die of bitterness or to search for more success in other careers and to go on living from success to success until he falls dead. In this case, there will not be life after success.’
He also indicates that:
“The waning of ability in people of high accomplishment is especially brutal psychologically. Consider professional athletes, many of whom struggle profoundly after their sports career ends. Tragic examples abound, involving depression, addiction, or suicide; unhappiness in retired athletes may even be the norm, at least temporarily. A study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology in 2003, which charted the life satisfaction of former Olympic athletes, found that they generally struggled with a low sense of personal control when they first stopped competing.”
I wish I could have known my father. I would give up a finger if I could magically teleport through time and appear in the neighboring room on this cruise ship (pictured below). I would question him for hours, and I would like to think we could hang out on the deck, smoking and drinking whiskey, well into the night. I guess that kind of thing only happens in science fiction, and while on L.S.D., though.
If you don’t know the story of a man from my alma mater, Greg Louganis, it’s quite interesting, and relevant. It’s entitled Back on Board. Louganis, a gay man at a time in which it was not very accepted, socially, was not offered the coveted “Wheaties box” honor—despite winning two gold medals in high diving in the 1984 Olympics and two in the 1988 games. That and some other issues plagued him—such as being snubbed by the US Diving to occupy a mentorship role for young U.S. Olympic athletes training as high divers—but that story has a happy ending (LINK), as he was recently honored with a retroactive spot on the box. Louganis also did get tapped by U.S. Diving to mentor young athletes, eventually.
Who is Greg Louganis without his sport? Interesting question. It was the subject of a brief NPR interview (LINK).
“When you retire from your sport, it’s almost like you lose a part of yourself. You lose your identity … I retired at 28 … You know, making that transition is not always easy. It’s like, ‘OK, now who am I? Who am I without my sport?’ ~ Greg Louganis
Brooks: “I asked Dominique Dawes, a former Olympic gold-medal gymnast, how normal life felt after competing and winning at the highest levels. She told me that she is happy, but that the adjustment wasn’t easy—and still isn’t, even though she won her last Olympic medal in 2000. ‘My Olympic self would ruin my marriage and leave my kids feeling inadequate,’ she told me, because it is so demanding and hard-driving. ‘Living life as if every day is an Olympics only makes those around me miserable.’”
One can often learn much by reading lyrics from the late, great drummer from the unparalleled rock group, Rush (Neil Peart). To listen to the song once you know the lyrics is even more compelling. Check out the story so artfully told by Peart in the haunting song, Losing It:
The dancer slows her frantic pace
In pain and desperation
Her aching limbs and downcast face
Aglow with perspiration.
Stiff as wire, her lungs on fire
With just the briefest pause
Flooding through her memory are
The echoes of old applause.
She limps across the floor
And closes her bedroom door.
The writer stares with glassy eyes
And defies the empty page
His beard is white, his face is lined
And streaked with tears of rage.
Thirty years ago, how the words would flow
With passion and precision
But now his mind is dark and dulled
By sickness and indecision
And he stares out the kitchen door
Where the sun will rise no more.
Some are born to move the world
To live their fantasies
But most of us just dream about
The things we’d like to be.
Sadder still to watch it die
Than never to have known it
For you, the blind who once could see
The bell tolls for thee, bell tolls for thee.
A person with the handle “tGibbs3” has this to say about the song:
“Peart is heavily influenced by Hemmingway many times in his lyrics. This one is a complete tribute to Hemmingway: he was a tough guy hunter/fisherman/boxer/bullfighting enthusiast who found it intolerable as he got older and lost his abilities, especially his writing ability, and then killed himself. ‘Where the sun will rise no more‘ is a direct reference to his novel ‘The sun also rises’, and ‘the bell tolls for thee’ a reference to his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. So, Hemmingway is the writer finding that the words will not flow with passion and precision (he is known for his precise style). Interestingly, Hemmingway coined the phrase ‘grace under pressure’, the name of the subsequent Rush album. Hemmingway was not able to find grace under pressure, and shot himself.” (LINK)
Considering Peart was a perfectionist, and a really nice guy, the fact that he could write this is kind of frightening to think about when one considers that he died a horiffic death to brain cancer in 2019. You know how they say “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person”? Yep, that’s the deal here.
Sadder still to watch it die/ Than never to have known it is haunting to me, not only when I think about success, fulfillment, and so on in my own life, but especially when I consider my father.
I catch my breath when I think that Peart lost his wife to a biking accident and his daughter to cancer within a year of each other. Just when you think you had a nice life, wham, desolation and despair. About the experience, Peart said “I am married to a dream girl, but the path that brought me to her was harsh and paved with broken glass. It left me cut and bleeding and scarred for life, and the price I paid for where I am now was almost more than I could survive.”
He was a motorcyclist who put almost 100,000 miles on his BMW. He was an accomplished cyclist. Peart was widely known as one of the most influential and adroit drummers in the music business. Rush earned more gold-certified albums than any rock group in U.S. history—save for the Beatles and the Stones. The thought of the man who wrote this dying of brain cancer is just absolutely dispiriting:
“Now what? All my life those two little words have sparked me with curiosity, restlessness, and desire–an irresistible drive to do things, learn things, go places, seek more and always more, of everything there is to do and see and try. My need for action, exertion, challenge, for something to get excited about, in turn inspired my ambition to try to capture those experiences, in songs and stories, and share them.”
When I’m feeling down, or plagued by loss, or not very successful, I consider Emerson’s mighty poem:
“What is success? To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch Or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!”
Professor Brooks adds:
“There are many exceptions, but the most profound insights tend to come from those in their 30s and early 40s. The best synthesizers and explainers of complicated ideas—that is, the best teachers—tend to be in their mid-60s or older, some of them well into their 80s.
That older people, with their stores of wisdom, should be the most successful teachers seems almost cosmically right. No matter what our profession, as we age we can dedicate ourselves to sharing knowledge in some meaningful way.”
I wish I could tell you that dad found an active life, and meaning and fulfillment, after retirement. He probably never got over the loss of the identity as Important Physician, Husband and Part of a Nuclear Family, and Sheriff Reserve Deputy. This is not to say that the 20 years he lived post-divorce, post-heart-attack, and post-forced-retirement were nothing significant. I am just saying that if he were Ernest Hemingway, he wouldn’t be publishing any novels in 1995, 2005, or 2015, and by 2017 my father finally died after a brutal and harrowing decline.
One of the last, haunting photos I have of my dad. I was not there when he died, of a heart attack, in 2017. I literally feel my stomach drop when I view the picture:
I try to remember him at age 50 (below, in Newport Beach, CA) rather than a man wracked by stroke, diabetes, heart disease, glaucoma, and anxiety and depression:
He wasn’t perfect then, either, but it is a far cry from, “Honey, can you wheel me out into the sun so I can sit and pass the hours?”
“We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep. It’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out windows, or drown themselves, or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us are slowly devoured by some disease, or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) know these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more. Heaven only knows why we love it so…” ―
For you, the blind, who once could see/ The bell tolls for thee.
I miss you, Dad.
“There is a beauty in the world, though it’s harsher than we expect it to be.” ―
I like to believe, or wish, that my dad found some fulfillment in his post-retirement years. I think before the dementia and physical ailments rendered him almost unrecognizable, to the degree that his awesomely unsettled and perfectionistic personality allowed, he was happy, more or less, more days than not.
There are lessons I can learn from this part of his story. Will I be able to grasp them, and remember them, through the many hours? Ω