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Essay: My Two Milestones

Hugh O'Neill

Lake Effect essayist Jerry Huffman recently turned 60 years old – and he already has already surpassed two big milestones for 2016. He reflects on how growing older has given him challenges not only professionally, but also physically after recovering from a stroke. Huffman explains how those events have changed his very definition of living:

My wife and I have always kept a flexible attitude around anniversaries. We try to hit the date, but with balancing two careers, a young man who was part of our family for several years, and a houseful of critters, we sometimes missed the mark give or take a few days or weeks.

I’ve got two pretty big milestones coming up in early 2016 and I’m wrestling with how to handle them. Part of me wants to embrace both with all of their inherent symbolism and part of me just wants to pull the blanket up over my head and wait for the world to go away.

First, I turn sixty in about three weeks. I’ve heard all of the rationalizations about sixty being the new fifty, and eighty is really seventy, but it’s still weird. Personally, I think I can still pitch for the Brewers.

For years, I had this Walter Mitty fantasy that Craig Counsell, the Brewers skipper, trots over to the box seats one night, looks me in the eye, and says, “C’mon Bulldog, yur’up.”  I like it when Skip calls me, “Bulldog.” I jog out to the mound pounding my mitt like I’m mad at it and three heaters later, Dee Gorden stares at his bat like it’s made of Swiss cheese as I’m waving to the crowd.

Mitty-isms aside, I am more optimistic at sixty than I was at fifty. I left television news to start over in public relations. Instead of writing the stories, my job is to get others to write them. It was a great, mid-life, course correction. Today, I get a much bigger kick out of helping authors, singers, and entrepreneurs end up in the media than I ever did being part of that circus.

One project changed my life this year. The book, Born Survivors, chronicles the story of three young pregnant women all in the same Nazi concentration camp at the end of the war. All three praying to live just one more day.  A Chicago soldier discovered the camp, saving the three newborns and thousands of other prisoners setting off an incredible chain of events that lead back to Wisconsin.

One of the “babies,” is seventy-year old Mark Olsky of Madison, a retired physician. Mark and his mother were taken to the gas chambers to be killed but walked out when the Germans ran out of lethal gas that afternoon. The three mothers, Mark and his two “siblings of the heart,” as he calls them eventually resettled; Mark in Wisconsin and Hana Berger Moran, a scientist, in California, and Eva Clarke, a school secretary, in England. Three sweet souls who chose lives of service instead of anger.

Meeting Mark spurred memories of my own dad. Then a 19-year old American soldier, he was one of the Allies helping liberate the death camps. All those weeks of, literally, lifting people from their death beds never left him.

My dad’s spirit was with us this spring when we invited the media to a small dinner to introduce Mark to Larry Kosiek of Lake Geneva. It was Larry’s dad, Albert, who discovered the camp some seventy years ago and the two had never met.

“We’re all here because of your father,” Mark told Larry, “because of him, we’re both alive.” I could feel my own dad’s arm around my shoulder as we stood there together. Helping tell their story also honors my dad and the thousands of other men and women who stood tall when the world needed them.

My other milestone is one not shared by as many people. Five years ago, in early February, a tiny blood clot almost cashed my ticket, setting off a rare and often fatal stroke. Instead, thanks to the quick thinking of my other-half I am still here. My life changed the day we met and twenty-five years later she saved my life by channeling her inner Matt Kenseth all the way to the hospital.

The recovery – physically, financially, and spiritually – was not easy for either of us. Professionally, the stroke cost me my job. Personally, it cost us our dream home in the country. Life in our sixties is harder because of the financial hit. There is relief we’re still here. But, even five years later there are still flashes of anger at the randomness of it all.

Recently I had an epiphany that put acceptance in a new light. I was talking with a high school friend who wondered if the pain of her divorce would ever fade. Much in the same way I have wondered if I would ever feel “recovered,” from the stroke.

I realized it’s unlikely there will ever be a moment when we can go, “there, that’s done.” Making peace with a life changing event whether it’s divorce, a health crisis, or the threat of dying in a gas chamber stays with you forever, but it doesn’t necessarily define you. The bad guys win only if you give up.

Sixty years old, and five years out from the stroke, I’ve realized living is about embracing the moments. For me it’s still the joy of a pure golf shot, turning the right phrase, or telling Carol just one more time how much I love her.

Now, I pretend not to notice the wrinkles when I shave every morning. I will laugh at the “old guy” jokes in a few weeks, and we’ll take time to remember that February night when both of our lives changed.

One more moment. One more chance to get it right.

Lake Effect essayist Jerry Huffman is a former Milwaukee television producer.  He now lives in Fitchburg and runs a media consulting firm, Go2Guy Communications.