Opinion: Dear Susi Q

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How Lucky Can You Get?

By Chris Quilter 

Back when I had the mind of a small child because I was a small child, I remember watching “Life Begins at Eighty” in living black-and-white on our mammoth RCA console with its laptop-sized screen. The show’s feisty elders were brought to us by Geritol, two tablespoons of which had “twice the iron in a pound of calves liver” (insert emphatic “eewww” from the four sons of Susi Q) and 12 percent alcohol, which is more like it.

Now I’m the octogenarian, having just reached a “significant milestone on the odometer of life,” as Mom put it in one of her “Diary of Susi Q” columns in the Indy’s Stu Saffer era. I remain reasonably upright but well aware that when one hits 80, it tends to hit back. Mom’s refrigerator magnet put it plainly: “My body is too fragile for the life I lead.” Nevertheless, she persisted and was deep into her eighties when she made her final astonishing announcement. 

After four angioplasties spread over 18 months and eleven days in the ICU, Mom decided that enough was enough. With the sang-froid of a Joan Crawford heroine, she lowered her oxygen mask and informed Dr. Walks-On-Water, her overeager-to-operate cardiologist, that she would no longer be needing his services because she wanted to die, which she did later that day with her sons at her bedside.

The author sits at his typewriter at age 10. Photo courtesy of Chris Quilter

Death! Dying! At this point, I can hear my brother Patrick saying, “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” As he knows, that’s the title of New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s brilliant graphic memoir about becoming her parents’ caregiver. It’s a must-read if you think you had “interesting” parents. I also recommend Ernest Becker’s trenchant “The Denial of Death,” which also qualifies as a cure for insomnia, and “Nothing to Be Frightened Of” by Julian Barnes, who “wouldn’t mind dying as long as I didn’t end up dead afterward.”

We should be so lucky. Nevertheless, luck factors into our lives more than we may care to admit. There’s the luck we were born with: our genetics, gender, color, class, etc. Then there’s dumb luck, the inexplicable kind that is randomly, unpredictably, and unevenly distributed. You win the lottery. You park downtown in midsummer right in front of the store. You outlive your wildest expectations in good enough fettle, nail your final Wordle, and don’t wake up the next morning. 

Mom had control freak tendencies (unlike me and thee, right?), so part of her dumb luck was to remain in control of her life until the end. Still, no matter how many more miles we have on our odometer of life, Dear Susi Q has some sound advice: “Don’t leave everything to chance until it’s too late.” Eighty may be the new 79, but we should all have a will, an advanced health care directive, a high-fiber diet and a few loved ones who won’t hesitate to pull the plug. 

In other words: Don’t push your luck.

Chris Quilter is on the Emeritus Council at Laguna Beach Seniors. “Dear Susi Q” is an advice column from Lifelong Laguna, the aging-in-place program at the Susi Q. Send your questions and comments to [email protected]. (No identifying names will be used.) For more information, please visit thesusiq.org.

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