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Never Too Old 

What it takes to amaze the man who has seen it all

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My grandfather Everett is 92. It doesn't take a lot to please him. A cup of coffee with cream. A phone call from his daughters. Cold beer. Soup. Bingo.

We sit at the kitchen table in the cold, old house. It's a place he doesn't visit much anymore, and when he does it brings back memories. Fireworks on Fourth of July. The way it used to shake when the Air Force planes would fly over to the nearby base. As a baby, I smeared cake on my face at this very table. And now we're sitting here, the pressure of the family on us, trying to figure out what thing about being him I should write about.

At his age, people are always telling him how amazing he is. That being 92 is a miracle. An inspiration. He doesn't see it that way. He sees this old, wrinkled, balding version of himself in the mirror, but inside he doesn't feel so old. But life, now, has lost so many of its little miracles and wonders and surprises.

Most everyone he knows has passed on to the other side. His five brothers. His three sisters. His wife of 64 years — my grandmother — passed away two years ago, but the person she was had been gone for four or five.

When family comes to visit, he asks them for a ride to the dollar store. He buys razors and aftershave, and bags of M&Ms and Hershey's Kisses that he squirrels away in his bedside table. He asks to go to three, four, five different cemeteries, where he yanks weeds from around the headstones of the people he once knew. He shakes his head at the miniature rose bush that yellowed and withered in the summer heat next to my grandma's grave. It's his grave too, really. Already etched next to her name is his: "EVERETT HALL 1921 — "

He's too old and too alone to live in his house. But once a week he gets a ride up to the tiny green cottage to shake his head at the crumbling chimney. To sit in his old chair. To see how the rhubarb is coming. To putter in that basement he dug with a pickaxe and a shovel. Sometimes he asks his daughters to let him come back here. "Dad... " they sigh. He knows.

He keeps a routine every day at the luxe assisted living facility where he lives — a place he calls "prison" or "the camp"; the smiling nurses are "guards." He walks in a mile loop, pausing to water tomatoes. He avoids the sniveling old-timers parked in a line of wheelchairs out in front. He clicks off his hearing aid, smiles when they try to get his attention, and keeps on walking.

In this world where everyone around him is shriveling, he tries to find miracles. His room is plastered with photos of his great-grandchildren. He scours the newspaper with a magnifying glass.

It's funny that the word "miraculous" doesn't come to mind when he thinks about his own life. The way he left home as a teenager to earn money on nearby farms was just survival. When he pulled his own hand out of a factory machine, that was just a high pain tolerance. The record-breaking trout he yanked out of a freezing lake was just luck. When it took him two years to dig a basement underneath his house — well, that was just hard-headedness.

His eyes light up when he talks about something that just happened. Something that, in 92 years, he never dreamt he'd see.

At the old green house one day, he puttered about as usual: pulling weeds, petting the big wolf dog over the fence next door, laying out mousetraps around the garage.

A week later, he came back to make his rounds. He dropped the skeleton key into the chipped garage door, and when he pushed it open, there it was: something he'd never seen. Something that seemed to amaze him more than the giant fish or his nearly severed hand. More than a black president or cellphone cameras. More than outliving everyone he's ever known. Something so unlikely that he smiles ear to ear when he even thinks about it.

Right there in front of him, in one of those cheap mousetraps, lay not one, but two dead mice.

Two mice that went for that Jif peanut butter bait at the exact same moment, at the exact same speed, and then — SNAP! Two mice, one trap.

He claps his hands sitting at the old kitchen table as he tells it, an Old Milwaukee cracked open in front of him, and lets out a roar of laughter, his eyes wide.

"Now that's something you should write about." ♦

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