This is a story about orange juice.
It’s more a story about maintaining vision for what matters most in this life and the life to come.
Don is closing in on 88, and like many people his age, the good comes with the bad.
He’s happy to be alive, keeps up with friends and family and talks about trips he’d like to take, but which now feel like longshots. A railroad enthusiast and lifetime bachelor, he’s been all over the world and ridden some of the most exotic and famed lines. But now he can no longer see well enough to drive, nor hear without help. If the tiny batteries in the hearing aids go, sounds turn into low mumbles and faint rumbles. Stairs are a hazard – a handrail is a must, along with a cane in the other hand.
His last train trip – an annual winter trek across Canada just prior to the pandemic – ended badly. A previous fall on ice damaged the part of his brain that controls balance.
On a cold day in Toronto, his turnaround point back to Vancouver, Don leaned motionless up against a brick wall, trying to muster the ability to cross a snow-covered street back to his hotel. But his legs wouldn’t move. Finally, after thirty minutes, a kind-hearted soul asked if he needed help. The man carried him across to the lobby of the Comfort Inn. He spent a week in his room, paying the desk clerk to fetch him sandwiches from a nearby shop.
It’s now been well over a year since the harrowing experience, and, like so many people, especially seniors, Don’s been laying low, mostly isolated in his own house where he’s lived for the last half-century. Physical therapy has made a difference, but between cancer, glaucoma, ongoing balance issues and losing twenty pounds in twelve months, Don’s juggling a myriad of health challenges.
“Do you know how many medications my doctor has me on?” he asks with a tone of exasperation in his voice.
He’s clearly not pleased. Perhaps even a bit embarrassed.
Before a heart attack at 49, the Wisconsin native didn’t give much thought to his health. We don’t tend to miss something until it’s gone. After the “big one” almost took him back in 1982, Don turned over a new leaf, determined to overcome a family history of cardiac disease. His father had died of a massive heart attack in his 40s, but that was before Lipitor.
Daily walks around his suburban Denver neighborhood became a habit and something he looked forward to. At some point, Don began passing a man in the park each morning who looked eerily familiar. They’d wave and nod but never talk, but mainly because the man gave every indication he had no desire to chat.
In time, Don recognized the man as Joseph Corbett – the convicted murderer of Adolph Coors III – heir to the famed brewing company in nearby Golden, Colo. Mr. Coors was CEO of the company when Corbett kidnapped and shot the mogul to death. Released early from prison, ex-convicts have to live somewhere, and Corbett happened to pick Don’s neighborhood. Corbett committed suicide in 2009.
“I was always a bit uncomfortable walking by him,” Don confessed. “But I also felt like he must be tormented inside. I would say a little prayer for him whenever we passed.”
Don’s not able to walk that or any route anymore. Everything is harder. He needs rides everywhere, including church, which has been a major part of his life since his upbringing at the First Presbyterian Church in Wausau, Wis.
After almost fifty years as a member of a downtown Presbyterian church in Denver, Don switched congregations a few years ago because of suspect theology that had made its way into the service. “Fidelity to the Scriptures is important to me,” he said. “But it wasn’t important to them.”
My father first met Don back in 1954 when they were stationed together in the Army at Camp Carson in Colorado Springs. Drafted during the Korean War, they worked at the base hospital. Upon discharge, my dad returned to New York, got married, launched a career and raised a family. Don returned to the University of Wisconsin, earned his degree and then relocated back to Denver to start his own successful career.
“Uncle Don” became an extended member of our family. Whenever he came east or we came west, we’d get together. Back when long-distance telephone was expensive, they’d exchange calls on birthdays and holidays. When I came to work at Focus on the Family, Don hosted and introduced me to Colorado life.
In those early days of living on my own, Don regularly checked in on me. He was always available for a conversation and willing to give advice if asked.
Visiting up in Denver this past weekend, almost a quarter century later, my wife and three boys and I attended church with him, followed by lunch. Vaccinated, he’s more comfortable getting out again but needs help. The pizza place we ate at was adjacent to a market, and Don asked if we could stop to pick up some groceries.
Helping him out of the car and getting him settled with a cart, all the memories of caring for my father came flooding back. My dad, who passed onto Glory in 2017, lived with us for the last 4 years of his life. Eager to help, our boys asked what Uncle Don wanted, offering to spare him the long walk around the store.
“I’d like some orange juice,” he said immediately.
“No pulp, low pulp, medium pulp or high pulp?” our eldest, Riley, asked.
“Oh,” he said. “I love high-pulp juice. But they don’t have that here. I’ve looked.”
“Let’s see what we can find,” Riley replied.
Within a few minutes, the high-pulp juice had been found. Don was pleasantly surprised. It turns out the store had always had the juice, but Don’s declining eyesight had prevented him from seeing the smaller print on the label.
A person’s advancing years can take a toll on them – physically, emotionally, psychologically and even spiritually. In Proverbs, we’re reminded that, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is obtained by following a righteous path” (16:31).
But lots of challenges come with gray hair, too. He once fought to keep America safe. The whole world used to be open to Don, but now even finding high-pulp orange juice is a challenge.
Nevertheless, Don keeps looking for the good. He’s eager to host visitors and continues sending birthday cards to the people in his life.
Don’s physical vision is deteriorating, but his vision regarding what really matters – honoring God’s sacred Word and maintaining relationships with the people he loves – remains 20/20.
By the world’s standards, Don has outlived his usefulness. His body is weakening and deteriorating, and the daily struggle is very real. Yet in God’s economy, he and other seasoned citizens like him remain a vital and important witness to the Gospel.
Photo from Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock.com