A Review of
Rick Lamplugh, The Wilds of Aging: A Journey of Heart and Mind (2018). Available at amazon.com in both paperback and e-book formats.
[NOTE: On two previous occasions (see here and here), I have reviewed books written by my brother Rick, who, over the past few years, has gone from being a retiree to an advocate for Yellowstone National Park and its wildlife. And now Rick is back, with a book he terms a “prequel” to his earlier works, In the Temple of Wolves and Deep into Yellowstone. Since the publication of those books, Rick frequently has been asked how he and his wife Mary became interested in Yellowstone and its environs. This is the story he tells in The Wilds of Aging.
Though the park and its wildlife certainly figure throughout this work, the “wilds of aging” Rick focuses on here grow out of his life before he and Mary moved to the Yellowstone area. And that “adventure” is largely an internal one.]
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For more than twenty years, Rick had been very active physically, especially on what he termed “adventures.” For much of that time, his routine (plan for “adventure”; experience “adventure”; write about “adventure”; and think about next “adventure”) had been automatic, almost painless. Then, as he entered his sixties, Rick felt his strength and conditioning beginning to wane.
As if this were not bad enough, during those same years Rick and Mary helped friends and family members, dealing with serious illnesses, to come to terms with what turned out to be their final journeys. In other words, Rick began to “feel old” at the same time people close to him were coping with fatal illnesses.
Like all of us of a certain age, Rick wondered what the future held for him. This question led, first, to an obsession with death, and then to a fixation on the question of what happens after death. His search for answers eventually took him and Mary from Corvallis, Oregon, to a new home just outside the gates of Yellowstone, in Gardiner, Montana, but that journey was neither simple nor straightforward.
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First, Rick decided that he must come to terms with his past, especially memories of his father, Ben, who died in 1986, and his mother, Betts, who was slipping into the netherworld of dementia. When his work began to slacken in the months before his scheduled retirement, Rick spent time in his backyard garden in Corvallis, all the while pondering mortality and keeping a journal, the basis for The Wilds of Aging.
To Rick, his late father became “Dead Old Dad,” a spectral figure who visited him in the garden and elsewhere, offering scathing criticisms—but little helpful advice. And the powerful stories Rick relates about Ben at first seem to portray him as a dysfunctional parent. Yet, he finally concluded that “given his upbringing, Dad did the best he could raising me.” (140) The chapters dealing with the fraught relationship between Rick and his father are the most poignant in the book. One chapter, “Ben-isms,” reviews some of Ben’s “wit and wisdom”; in another, “Unlike Dad,” Rick explains that lessons he learned from Ben were frequently negative; that is, he remembered what his dad had done in a certain situation–then did the opposite.
When his parents split up in the summer of 1964, Rick, who was still in high school, chose to remain with his father. So, it was up to him to keep Ben’s creditors at bay and try to cope with his father’s accelerating descent into alcoholism. Rick, at sixteen, soldiered on, doing the best he could during a desperate time, but the experience permanently affected him. The stories he relates of this period are both painful and powerful. Readers hoping for closure, or redemption, will find something close to it in “Finally Spoken,” a moving account of how Rick and a clearly dying Ben finally came to terms with each other.
Rick’s mother, Betts, was a different story. When her struggle with dementia entered its final stages, Rick and Mary traveled back east from Oregon each year to visit Mary’s family in Baltimore and Betts in southern Delaware, where, after living for a while with her daughter and son-in-law, she was moved to a local “rest home” and, finally, to a “personal care” facility. Hoping that Betts benefited from his visits, Rick eventually realized that she no longer recognized him. Betts died in December 2013, just short of her ninety-first birthday.
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Reflecting on friends and relatives who had passed away, Rick detected a seemingly insurmountable gulf between the views they held of dying, views generated by the “heart” or by the “mind” (note the subtitle of the book). For his mother-in-law, for example, death seemingly held no terrors. Her heart convinced her that she would see her husband again–as well as God. On the other hand, one of Rick and Mary’s friends, Daniel, flatly dismissed the idea of life after death; his mind told him that dying was simply a matter of “Light switch on/light switch off.” (56)
This stark difference in views of death held by people who were facing it, ultimately led Rick to review literature on death and the afterlife. This process climaxed when he attended a debate at Oregon State University in Corvallis between a conservative Christian and a former Christian who had become an atheist. At the core of the debate, Rick believed, was faith; the conservative had it, the atheist did not.
In evaluating their arguments, Rick could not escape lessons taught by his career counselling people who had experienced job loss and were trying to re-enter the work force. Rick’s approach had rested on his ability to convince clients to take a “leap of faith,” to believe that “there is life after loss.” (165) Suddenly finding himself in the same position as his former clients, Rick realized that, despite his time in the garden, he could not make that leap. (166)
It was this realization that helped persuade Rick and Mary to visit Yellowstone and, eventually, to move just outside the park and devote their time and energy to the struggle to preserve its animals and environment from threats both internal and external. This was a new “adventure,” one that might be more meaningful than earlier ones, and for which Rick now felt better prepared.
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The Wilds of Aging resembles its predecessors in several ways. First, Yellowstone National Park plays a role, though, in this case, it’s the endpoint of Rick’s autobiographical “back story,” rather than the central focus. Rick’s writing style remains engaging. As in his earlier books, incidents in his “present,” this time his work in his backyard garden in Corvallis, spark reflections on the past, some personal (“Dead Old Dad” again), and others about his and Mary’s growing affection for the nation’s first national park.
If you’ve enjoyed Rick’s earlier books, you’ll like The Wilds of Aging. If this is your first encounter with the author, this book should whet your appetite to read the earlier volumes, which, while less explicitly autobiographical, offer a moving, lyrical view of life in Yellowstone.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: