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I’m alone for the holidays at 78 — and looking forward to a whole new life

Alone for the holidays for the first time in my life. At 78 years old. I contemplated that painful reality.

My mind wandered back to past holidays, and, as my spirits began to sink, I heard my cellphone chime. It was an invitation from the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach, California, where I swim, to attend a presentation by heroes from Israel’s elite search and rescue team, Unit 669, named for the 669 times Jerusalem is mentioned in the Bible. They were on a new mission: to save lives in the U.S. by bringing over cutting-edge emergency medicine and special first-aid kits modeled after the ones carried by the medics on their team.

A nonobservant Jew, I didn’t have much interest in Israel until I went on a cruise that included a visit to Jerusalem on the itinerary. I came away deeply touched by all I learned and experienced. The idea of hearing about heroes piqued my interest. Without thinking, I reserved a spot at the event.

Then I remembered my unsteady feet — arthritis, and they’re flat as a board — and my sketchy night vision. And my walker.

There was a time where nothing stopped me. I mean nothing. At 22, when I spontaneously decided I wanted to be a professional pianist and vocalist, I took three piano lessons a day for two short weeks, and started my first job at a restaurant and bar in Sun Valley, Idaho. At 58, despite my fears — will a lion suddenly climb into our jeep and decide we’d be a tasty treat for dinner? — I traveled to Africa for a safari.

Even six months ago I was getting around just fine, more or less.

And then one morning I woke with severe pain in my right hip. Bursitis. A condition that affects the fluid-filled sacs that cushion the bones. I screamed in agony whenever I had to put weight on that leg. After many months of irregular walking, my feet became even more unstable than before. Thanks to pool therapy, the pain finally subsided, but I remained unsteady on my feet. I started to need to use a walker for balance.

I had not been out at night alone in a long time. The fear of falling overwhelmed me.

I don’t have a boyfriend — yes, I still date! — so I asked a few friends to join me. No one was available. I asked a stranger at the pool. Same answer. I considered canceling my reservation for the event. I wrestled with feeling strangled by the life I was living: confined, without stimulation, without new experiences.

And then I got fed up. I swallowed hard, put on some makeup, and left my apartment.

It was dusk by the time I got to the area where the event was taking place, at a JCC member’s home, not the center I was used to. I struggled to see addresses. I could feel my anxiety level rising. A postal worker still delivering mail walked in my direction, and I wasted no time soliciting her help.

I finally found the house and a parking place. I got my walker out of my car and headed for the front door. And that’s when I saw the dozen steep steps I would have to climb to enter the house. Instantly, I realized there was no way I could get up there with my walker.

I was about to go back to my car and return home, but a woman attending the event saw my dilemma and said, “I’ll help you up.” I took her arm and cautiously put one foot after the other. I asked a fellow arriving at the same time — who I later found out was one of the heroes — if he could bring up my walker, and he did.

I was there! I made it!

For the next 90 minutes, three heroes from Unit 669 talked and showed slides chronicling their experiences saving lives.

As I listened to the young men talk, I was awed by all they had accomplished. In their roles, they had to be prepared for anything: saving downed pilots behind enemy lines, braving a water rescue while fighting 10-foot waves, and more.

I was completely caught up in their breathtaking stories of courage and determination, and how, when they finished their five years of service, they turned around and trained others to do what they had done. And I was surprised when I felt just a touch of heroism within myself. I hadn’t given in to my challenges.

A slow realization emerged. I didn’t need to be held back by my fears. I could forge through, as the heroes did, and as I did in my earlier years. I looked forward to the whole new life that was in front of me. I could see myself as alone for the holidays, burdened by a walker, etcetera. Or I could choose to see, in the place of those burdens, new and different kinds of opportunities.

And the woman who helped me up the stairs? She’s coming to dinner this weekend.

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