The U.S. Social Security Administration tells us that a white male of my age has an additional life expectancy of 8.9 years. I do not want to leave those years to chance, so I am methodically trying to decide which of the many potential opportunities I shall pursue with the time I have left.
The task has turned out to be more difficult than I expected because my life up to this point is a tough act to follow. During my first 79 years, I helped to raise three amazing children, held several interesting jobs, started several successful businesses (as well as a couple of failed ones), appeared on national television for more than two decades, traveled to 81 countries, sailed boats, raced cars (illegally), celebrated my 75th birthday at the 19,341-foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and stayed married to the same woman for 55 years. The going has not always been easy, but I have learned a few important lessons along the way.
Lesson 1: It's about the journey, not the destination. When I started medical school, I was certain I would become a psychiatrist, but two guitar-playing OB/GYN residents in the labor room convinced me that I was on the wrong path, so I changed my plans. I will always be grateful for their music. At the end of my residency, I was drafted into the Army - a fate that my wife Priscilla and I dreaded. The actual experience was much better than expected, and she convinced me to sign up for an extra year of service. We look back on that additional year as one of the best we've ever shared.
Lesson 2: The greatest joy and rewards often are found outside your comfort zone. I was terrified of appearing on television, but one appearance on a local TV station led to a 23-year career as a national medical commentator. For years, I opposed the idea of a family ski vacation and agreed to go only when Priscilla scheduled the trip without me. Now, 45 years later, skiing together is a family passion. I also resisted her pleas to go hiking or camping, but a 2009 trek in Nepal turned out to be the most "spiritual" trip of our lives. Two years later, we celebrated my 75th birthday together at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Lesson 3: The only way to fail is by not trying. Since climbing Kilimanjaro, Priscilla and I have attempted three glacier climbs in South America. Though we got past 17,000 feet each time, we were not able to reach any of the summits. Was that failure? Never! When we reached our limit, we looked for the best nearby spot where we could take a dramatic photo, and then we declared victory and went home.
Lesson 4: We have no guarantee of tomorrow so live each day well. Twenty years ago, I drove to Fresno to say goodbye to a med-school roommate, Tom Thaxter (MD '61), who was dying of lung cancer. We spent three hours together, reminiscing about medical school and laughing a lot. When his fatigued state made it obvious it was time for me to leave, we hugged and said goodbye. Before I reached the door, Tom called out to me with this question: "If you learned today that you only have four more weeks to live, would you spend the next four weeks the same way you spent the last four?" The question caught me by surprise, and I was unable to come up with an answer. But Tom was ready with this message: "You know that I don't have four more weeks. I need you to know that you don't have a guarantee of four weeks, so remember this moment and live every day well." Tom died less than 10 days later, but his parting message continues to inspire me to this day. It's the most valuable gift I've ever received.
I AM 80 YEARS OLD NOW. The actuaries tell me that I can expect to live a shade under nine more years, but Tom's message reminds me that I have no guarantee of tomorrow. Priscilla reminds me that I have 95,000 digital photos that need to be sorted, our garden is in terrible shape, the garage is a mess, the cars are dirty, our estate plan is out of date and there are 120 countries left to visit. So what's our plan? For the rest of our days, we plan to stay outside of our comfort zones as much as possible. In 2023, Priscilla and I are scheduled to return to Kilimanjaro, where we will attempt to break the Guinness World Record for "Oldest Couple, Aggregate Ages, to Reach the Summit." The current record is 169 years; if we succeed, our combined age will be 171 years.
We have no intention of sitting around until then. In May, 2017, we'll start leading high-altitude adventure treks designed specifically for seniors, and in July, we'll accompany our first group to the summit of Kilimanjaro. We plan to repeat that ascent every year until we can climb for the record in 2023.
Why would a sane 80-year-old and his much-younger wife commit to climbing a 19,000-foot mountain at least seven more times in the next seven years? Because each climb will bring new challenges, new friends, new vistas and new experiences. Because every climb is filled with its own unique beauty and rewards. Because it's not about the destination. It's about the journey.