92 years and still going strong

Connie Pope knows firsthand it’s not easy to ride on the back of a motorcycle when you’re about to give birth.

Given the way her baby was situated during her labor, she says just getting her hands around her husband’s waist to hold on as he raced to the hospital emergency room “was a good stretch … my husband was almost sitting on the handlebars so I’d have room, but the bumps we hit still hurt.”

When she and her husband, then in the Marines, arrived at the North Carolina hospital, the doctor was incredulous.

“Doctor wasn’t happy at all,” the 92-year-old great-great-grandmother recalls, laughing so hard she appears in danger of breaking a rib. “He said I could have had the baby in the saddle. It’s all my husband had then, and I was naive about having babies. That wasn’t the way I got to the hospital for my next two kids.”

It’s almost noon as the gray-haired, petite widow goes down memory lane while at the kitchen table in the Las Vegas home she shares with her daughter and son-in-law. I’m visiting to get background on this woman who’s been torn about what she wants done with her body when she dies: Should she donate her organs to others or her entire body to science?

Connie called me a couple of times in the past year to talk about her situation.

Memories, she says, have had a lot to do with the decision she’s finally made.

“My father was a shoemaker — I was one of 13 kids — and we didn’t have much money, but we always shared what we had to help others,” she says, sipping on one of several cups of coffee she has during a day. “I can remember when I was a little girl my mother always made 25 loaves of bread every day and we gave at least five away each day to people who weren’t doing well. When you’re brought up that way, you’re that way until the day you die.”

Although she wants to make sure she has all the paperwork in order so people know what to do when she dies, it doesn’t appear she’s going to die anytime soon.

Her blood pressure is an incredibly healthy 125 over 60. The only medicine she takes is a baby aspirin once a day and Tylenol PM at night so she can sleep through the pain in her arthritic hands. Her mind is so agile that she readily remembers dates and times and names connected with pictures that were taken 70 years ago.

She shows how she can easily do 10 standing toe touches in a row without bending her legs. When she waits for her clothes to stop drying, she tap dances in the laundry room.

“I learned these steps from watching Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire,” she says as she dances. “I walk some, too.”

What keeps her so limber and upbeat, she believes, is the way she gets up every morning. First, she thanks God for health, family and friends, then she does leg lifts and other exercises in bed. Later, she may drive to visit Calvalry Chapel Lone Mountain church friends or those church members who are ill.

She remains her family’s caregiver, often jetting off to care for brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and friends in states such as Pennsylvania and Florida. Doctors in Tallahasee, Fla., were so impressed by her walking around the the hospital in 2006 when one of her daughters was being treated for a stroke that they had her wear a pedometer.

It turned out she was walking more than 5 miles a day.

For 15 years, until he died in 2005, Connie cared for her husband, Charles, a retired steel company foreman and World War II veteran who had Alzheimer’s. Married for 62 years, the couple moved to Las Vegas from New York in 1994.

“I was happy to care for him,” she says. “He was so good to me. He wanted me to be a stay at home mom because his mom worked and he didn’t see her much. He didn’t want that for our kids. We were people who, when we had a disagreement, let things cool down for a couple of days before we came back to it. We never wanted to say something we’d be sorry for.”

The more she talks about Charles, who fought at Iwo Jima and was wounded during fierce fighting against the Japanese, the more teary-eyed she becomes.

“I didn’t start driving until I was in my 30s and he got me a red Cadillac. When he came home and saw the car had been in an accident, he came in wondering if I was all right. He was upset that I might have got hurt, not that the car was damaged.”

In the spirit of her parents, she and her husband would find out through their church which people were having a difficult time and buy groceries for them. Employees at Smith’s, where the couple always purchased groceries when they were in Las Vegas, were so impressed that they threw a birthday party for Connie on her 80th birthday, an event that was reported in the Review-Journal’s View section in 2001.

That Charles died of Alzheimer’s and other loved ones she’s cared for either died or suffered with conditions that include heart disease, diabetes and cancer persuaded her to give her entire body to the University of Nevada School of Medicine.

“I know donating organs saves lives, too,” Connie says. “More people have to do that, too. I’m just hoping doctors who learn on a whole human cadaver may help figure out how some diseases start and we can get rid of them. I’d like others to be blessed with the good health I’ve had. We need to help each other all we can.”

(People who want to donate their body to the University of Nevada School of Medicine should call Joyce King, administrator of the statewide nonprofit program, at 775-784-4569.)

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