Livin' Long In The Lone Star State
By Kevin Sweeney
The gaunt, weather-beaten face under the white cowboy hat could be a crinkled character actor in a black & white western, sipping whiskey and spinning his spurs in front of the saloon. But the cowpoke is Dr. James Pittman, a 93-year-old Texan who's been retired for nearly 25 years from Houston's Hermann Hospital, where he was chief of staff and head of the surgery department.
Cindy Pickard first met Pittman when she volunteered to drive him to the horse races in San Antonio. Pickard, a photographer and filmmaker, was worried about the 90-minute drive on such a hot day. "He was so old," she recalls when she pulled up at Pittman's ranch in her Jeep. "I thought, out here it's a long way to anywhere. He's so old and fragile. What if something happens? What if we don't have anything to talk about? What if he can't hear, puts one of those megaphones up to his ear and yells 'Hehhh?!'"
To Pickard's relief, she and the Doc had plenty to jaw about. "He was just this lively, interesting guy with great stories about growing up in Arkansas, his years in the field. I mean, here was a doctor who was at the top of the line in Houston, but he had no trouble dropping that part of his life when age made it inevitable." Intrigued, Pickard returned to Pittman's ranch to photograph him working around the place. Those photos--and their conversations--formed the basis for "The Gathering of the Wisdom People," a traveling photo/oral history exhibit on aging, and Bringing the Circle Together, a one-hour documentary video.
In addition to Pittman, the video profiles three spirited, opinionated, but never sanctimonious 96-year-olds: Reginald Harling, a retired math and science professor; Alvin Ivy, a rancher; and Conrad Wilson, a former grading contractor. All four live independent, seemingly fulfilling lives--Pittman and Ivy manage to work a bit of the land, Wilson still drives a car and his dance card is always full, and Harling is learning Russian while teaching French and German.
But Pickard's probing also draws out their anxieties. "Their values impress me, and I'm truly interested in their stories, in how they make it on their own." Some of this is dryly humorous, as when Ivy is asked if there's anything good about getting old: "If there is, I haven't found it." Wilson frets about the loss of autonomy if forced to relinquish his "wheels." Most poignantly, Harling's wife of 67 years lives in a nursing home, suffering from advanced Alzheimer's. He worries what will happen to her if she outlives him, as well as how much longer he can keep living on his own.
The video was produced by Rites of Passage, a not-for-profit group Pickard founded 11 years ago. Under her direction, Rites of Passage has provided hospice care for the terminally ill of all ages, from babies with AIDS to elderly cancer patients. Pickard, a onetime occupational therapist, has given seminars on AIDS awareness and death and dying issues and created innovative outreach programs, such as art classes for terminal patients. With her son Andy, she has produced a number of well-received videos, including two about a six-month-old AIDS patient, Jason the Way We Live Today and Angels Watch Over Me.
"The Gathering of the Wisdom People," which includes the photos and histories of 18 people ranging in age from 82 to 99, and Bringing the Circle Together are Pickard's most ambitious projects to date. Both were tough and often discouraging to make because funding was all but impossible to obtain--"Amazingly, considering the importance of aging issues in our society, no groups were interested in putting any money into them," she says.
But, as always, the work got done because money has never been a driving force in Pickard's life. She works where she lives, a funky mobile home on 60 acres near Vanderpool, an area so remote that the Texas Rangers were moseying around near her spread this spring looking for missing (and presumed dead) atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair.
Pickard was drawn to death and dying issues from an early age--her mother died of cancer when Pickard was nine, and her brother committed suicide several years later. Her experiences as an OT in a nursing home convinced her that there had to be another way. "Nobody would deal with the emotional suffering of patients, only their physical recovery. I found that real depressing."
The longed-for sense of meaning came from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whose philosophy and workshops inspired Pickard to form Rites of Passage. "I guess I've spent my whole life looking for people who are looking for what life is all about."
For more information on booking "The Gathering of the Wisdom People" exhibit or purchasing Rites of Passage videos, contact Cindy Pickard at Box 226, Vanderpool, TX 78885, (830) 966-6170, or check out www.ktc.net/ritesofpassage.
Kevin Sweeney is Trustee's copy editor.
This article first appeared in the September 1999 issue of Trustee Magazine.