Monday, August 15, 2011

A True Survivor

Image via Navy Times

This isn't exactly the kind of post I ever thought I would write, maybe because I just assumed my "Cool Seniors" page (see the tab above) would be about currently living seniors who were living the creative life, either long-term or newly found. Albert Brown passed away yesterday- August 14, 2001- at the age of 105. I don't know if he was a creative man. Albert "Doc" Brown was the oldest survivor of the Bataan Death March, which occurred in the Philippines in World War II. An estimated 11,000 US and Philippine soldiers died on the 65-mile forced march from Bataan province near Manila to a Japanese POW camp.

I'm kind of a history buff- all kinds of history, not just WWII- and I read Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath by Michael Norman this past year. It is a horrific story of the depths to which people can sink and a celebration of the heights to which they can rise. I have not read Forsaken Heroes of the Pacific War: One Man’s True Story, Doc Browns story. Even though it is not available at this time on Amazon (first time that's every happened!), you can bet I will track it down.

Bataan Death March survivor Albert Brown speaks with members of the SIUC Army ROTC at his daughter's home in Pinckneyville, Ill., in 2005.
Image via Navy Times

What I thought about, as I read about Doc Brown's life and his death (click here) on Sunday in an Illinois nursing home was how many stories we have at our finger tips. I once met a man who was on the Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb. I was talking with a man once, whom I had gotten to know better than most of my folks, and he unexpectedly told me about an event that had happened 50 years earlier, on that very day, during WWII. It was horrific and it was the first time I ever cried openly with a patient. He was silent for a good while after he told me his story and then he said, "I'm soon 100 years old. I swore I would take that story to my grave. But now I've told you and I'm asking you to take it to yours." I am honored to do so.

I've gotten to know gem cutters, nuclear scientists, professors, women who played in the first professional women's baseball league, pilots, mountain climbers, coal miners, custodians, house wives (I know that's an out of vogue term), seamstresses, Rosie the Riveters, more doctors and lawyers than I can count, a rodeo clown, an astronaut, pig farmers, itinerant preachers, you name it. We all have met such a rich and colorful group of people through our work with seniors. But it isn't the jobs they held that impresses and amazes me. It's the things they survived. Prison camps, sunken ships, the Dust Bowl, 14 children, abusive husbands, disease, being held hostage ... again countless. And it isn't just surviving that leaves me in awe, it's the thriving that comes afterwards, in spite of life's unfair card dealing.

Someone once asked me why I like working with senior citizens so much. Here's how I explain it: It's like walking on the beach with miles and miles of sand and sameness. But when you look closer, there are beautiful shells, starfish, jelly fish, shark egg cases, sea glass. All kinds of things wash up to the shore, all beautiful and precious. And sometimes, while walking on the beach, if you dig enough, you uncover treasure. That's how it feels to me when I suddenly learn something about a patient/resident that is totally amazing. It's like digging up jewels.

I would LOVE to hear about your amazing seniors.

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