Accept and deal with limitations

Nearly all the lessons of early life, from tying your shoes to parallel parking and knowing which wine to order with dinner are really lessons in figuring out how to do things as you grow up.

From knowing your skills and dreaming of where they can take you, you begin to figure out not so much who you are, as they used to say in the ’60s, but who and what you’d like to be when-if ever-you grow up.

But there’s another part of the process too: learning-and accepting-what you can’t do or, sometimes, what you used to do but can’t do any longer. Some of that’s just aging, accelerated, in my case, by 50 years of smoking cigarettes-a tyranny I’ve been free of for well over a year now (thanks to the patch, Zyban and some wonderful professional help) but for which I am still paying a heavy price. 

Accepting limitations
With some growing up left to do, I’m beginning to understand that the limitations I’m facing aren’t that different from those I’ve had to deal with all my life.

I was only about 12, for instance, when it became clear that Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t going to marry me and not much older when I saw-from the expression on thchoirmaster’s face as he listened to me run through some scales-that I should probably give up my dream of succeeding Bing Crosby.

I held on a bit longer to the idea that some day I’d play in the National Hockey League. I had, after all, scored dozens of goals in the Stanley Cup finals, many of them in overtime. You could hear Foster Hewitt yelling my name as I broke down the wing of the outdoor rink in Dickson Park.

‘The kid from Galt has done it again,’ Foster would shout over the roar of the crowd, even though he and I-or his voice and I-were all by ourselves in the winter morning.  

Actually, I never gave up thinking there’d be a place for me in the NHL. Playing big-time hockey is the one ambition that draws all Canadian males together, and though I can’t prove it, I’d be willing to bet that if Chris Hadfield had been a better skater, he might never have walked in space or if James Orbinski had had a harder slapshot, he might never have become the president of Médecins Sans Frontières, which won the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

Shinny with Oilers
About 30 years after everyone else had given up on my hockey career, I spent a season hanging out with the Edmonton Oilers. Ostensibly I was writing a book about them, but in my heart, I was just looking for a chance to show my stuff.

It came one day at practice. The team had been playing well, and Glen Sather, the coach and general manager, set up a game of old-fashioned shinny. I borrowed some gear, joined in and managed for a shift or two to become a winger on Wayne Gretzky’s line. At one point I wobbled to a place in front of the opposition goal. Wayne set up behind the net-in his office, as we reporters liked to say. He dug out the puck, feinted once and flipped it right onto my stick. I took dead aim at the empty corner, cocked my wrist and …
Oh, well, maybe I wasn’t cut out for the NHL after all-though I almost hit the net.

Full life
Playing hockey, crooning or marrying movie stars aside-not to mention breaking a quarter horse, flying my own jet, swimming the Strait of Juan de Fuca and all the other dreams that have faded as I’ve aged–I’ve had a pretty full life.

On radio or television or with a pencil in my hand, I’ve got to meet the Queen, eight prime ministers (nine, if you count Margaret Thatcher, who had a cold and couldn’t hear my questions but kept on answering what she’d have liked me to ask anyway), four Governors General, two chief justices, two Nobel Prize winners, the world champions of yodelling, whistling and bagpipes (all Canadian), and every winner and most of the runners up of the Giller Prize for Literature.

I’ve danced with Veronica Tennant and Karen Kain (well, I made a lifting motion and Karen sprang in the air, light as dandelion fluff), sang with Leonard Cohen (well, Leonard sang and I chanted along to ‘Tower of Song’), played chess with Boris Spassky (I moved, he moved, I asked if he wanted to resign, he grinned, said ‘sure’ and we shook hands), played golf with George Knudsen, cribbage with Gordon Sinclair and-well, sort of, as we’ve seen-hockey with Wayne Gretzky.

And I’m a long way from finished.

Need oxygen
Some things have changed of course. The list of things I’ve had to learn over the years that I wasn’t meant to do grows longer every year.

I need oxygen most of the time now and, without my walker-a kind of baby carriage without the baby-I’m pretty well confined to barracks. On radio, which I still love, I sometimes sound a little breathier than I’d like to and if I’m asked to make a speech, I need to know there aren’t too many stairs to the platform.

Travel is hard too, but there are ways to do it if I plan every move as carefully as I can, ask for rooms near elevators and make sure the airlines know I need oxygen.

Even around the city where I live, I’ve learned to call restaurants in advance to make sure washrooms are on the main floor. I’ve taken to-and hugely enjoy-having friends in for lunch rather than going out. I’m way ahead on my reading and writing, and I’ve bought a treadmill to keep myself as active as I can.

Use resources well
I’m still who I am though. I learned long ago that we’re not defined by what we can do. We measure ourselves by how well we use the resources we still have. I’ve learned that once you accept your limitations you can deal with them.

Whatever the fate of my old dreams, there are still things I hope to do. I’d like to learn some Inuktitut-there are lessons, believe it or not, on the Internet-and I’m wondering if I could try a little watercolour sketching. I want to play golf with my granddaughters and ride in a sailboat with one of my sons at the helm.

Elizabeth Taylor?  I never liked her that much anyway.
Peter Gzowski is now a columnist for CARPNews FiftyPlus magazine. The former host of CBC Radio Morningside, journalist and author has often been dubbed Mr. Canada because of his passion for the country and his respect for our heritage and culture. He shares his views from the perspective of a 66-year-old who knows the importance of having youthful dreams as well as the importance of being able to let them go with grace.