Every February, it's time for happy birthday wishes to one of our family's Aquarius people: Big Bill.
"Big Bill" is my husband's dad. He got his nickname from me because he and my husband have the same first name. Years ago, I took to calling him Big Bill to differentiate between father and son, and it turned out he loved the nickname - as did other family members. So it's stuck all these years.
This past weekend, we went to visit Big Bill and share birthday wishes as he celebrated turning 96.
He lives in an Illinois Veterans' Home outside the Chicago area. He moved there last year on his birthday after being in an independent living apartment for eight years, most of those with his beloved wife, Jean, before she passed away just before their 60th wedding anniversary.
The nursing home is located in Manteno, Illinois, a small town south of Chicago. For us city dwellers, it's a road trip when we go to Manteno.
Over the past year, we've come to enjoy this hour-plus drive, which takes us down various interstates, ending up in a small town with less traffic and an easier pace.
Once we exit the third of the three interstates we need to take to get to Manteno, we find ourselves in a small town with a mix of small businesses, many churches, large industrial and business facilities, and several farms.
It's fun to see the seasons change gradually from visit to visit. And it's wonderful to have time together, on the road, chatting and laughing.
On this past Saturday, the drive was especially pleasant because the Sun was shining and reflecting off the snow on the ground. It was such a cheerful sight after a long and very cold and snowy winter for Chicago so far this season.
When we arrived at the VA, for the first time Big Bill was just inside the entryway, soaking up the warmth and sunbeams in a hallway with windows on one wall. It was good to see him.
During our visit, we learned the VA had made a wonderful fuss over him for this year's birthday. We continued the celebrations by spending a much longer time than usual sitting together, noshing on chocolates, and catching up on how he's doing.
Big Bill has always been a good storyteller. He's led an adventurous life, first as a triple veteran of W.W. II (he served as a civilian employee of the military, followed by stints in the merchant marines and the army), then later as a Chicago taxi driver and then as a truck driver for most of his working years.
When we visit, he talks about his young days in Chicago, where his parents ran a bakery. In those days, many businesses still used a horse and wagon. And kids could play baseball in the streets because there were so few cars - and several streets were still unpaved.
Whatever stories he recounts, Big Bill has a unique perspective. People with this zodiac sign see the world a bit differently, and they march to a different beat that only they can hear. So it's fun to hear his take on people and his memories about his many adventures.
He's also interested in what we're up to. So every visit is a chance to fill him in on what's new since last time, tell him about the other people and relatives he knows, and keep him updated on the world outside the VA home.
When it's time to leave, he always understands. And he always takes a moment to thank us for coming. I feel lucky every time he says his thanks.
When I was young, like many people I felt uncomfortable with the subject of old age. Now, all these decades later, I feel a greater peace about the subject because my husband and I have experienced so many changes with our parents.
Our mothers passed on, mine in 2013 and Bill's in 2014. And my dad died last month. So Big Bill is the last of our older ones now. He's also the last one of his generation on both sides of the family, as all his siblings and in-laws have crossed over.
He uses a wheelchair all the time now, and his body is weaker and shakier than a year ago. He continues to have his share of physical ailments and setbacks, but through it all his personality remains vibrant.
I've learned to feel so much gratitude for this stage of life. Although it's subdued, quieter than the hustle of younger ages, it's an important part of life and a deeply poignant one. It has its special beauty, and I'm glad to know that now.
Visiting Big Bill reminds me to slow down, hear the stories, and ask the questions now, while he's here to answer them. Mostly, he reminds me about enjoying the quality of life, no matter what's happening and regardless of changes in someone's mental or physical capacity.
So happy birthday to you, Big Bill! Thanks for brightening our day each time we visit and teaching us through your example.