When the doctor says your time is up, you might as well take one last adventure, even if it has to be a virtual voyage.
At 95 years old, Doug Finlay of Moretown — a World War II veteran — is bed-ridden.
He has trouble walking, his hearing is going, and when doctors told him in September 2016 that his pacemaker battery had only a year and a half left, Finlay chose not to replace it, knowing that once the battery dies, so will he.
The pacemaker, at this point, is doing the full work of the heart, said Jane Willard, a friend of Finlay.
When he got the news, Finlay asked Willard to help him research burials at sea for retired U.S. Navy personnel and started to get his affairs in order, asking Willard to contact people he wanted to see before he died.
It’s been nearly two years since that day.
Finlay is perplexed as to why he is still around, but he’s glad that he’s at home, with his daughter — a registered nurse at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center — caring for him.
“I attribute Doug’s longevity to her care,” Willard said. “Bonnie is just stellar.”
Finlay and his wife, Betty, are both 95 years old, “but it was my daughter’s decision to try to keep us home and not put us into an institution,” Finlay said, tears welling up in his eyes. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the family I have.”
Every good naval officer has a good wife, he said.
Finlay and his wife have been married for 75 year.
Finlay spent 27 years in the Navy, three of them during World War II, and in all that time, he never saw combat.
After the Korean War, Finlay was selected for Naval Air Force training, and spent 15 years at five naval stations across the country— three years at each.
Finlay had different duties at every station, from training officer to personnel officer.
He was even part of the crew to evaluate the new canted flight deck on an aircraft carrier in the mid-1940s, flying a Grumman F9F Panther — one of the U.S. Navy’s first carrier-based jet fighters.
Finlay retired as a captain in 1969 and found his way to Vermont a year later, taking a much quieter job as the town manager of Waterbury for five years, before serving on the Moretown Select Board for eight years.
He’s lived in the same old farmhouse ever since.
In 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene struck the area, Finlay’s house was hit hard. The basement was full of mud and water rising up to the floor joists. Finlay had a broken leg at the time, and needed a lot of help.
A couple from Stowe, Helene Martin and Bob DiMario, stopped in to help.
“They were strangers, but they took the time,” Finlay remembered.
DiMario had also been in the Navy, serving on a submarine, and Finlay told him he’d be the boss downstairs.
DiMario and Martin led a bucket brigade, salvaging what personal items they could, which wasn’t much. Seven years later, DiMario and Martin remain in touch, often joining Finlay for dinner.
“I have always been fortunate to be with the people I need to be with,” Finlay said.
A few months ago, Finlay and his wife were able to get into a hospice care program where volunteers come into their home to just spend time or help with whatever is needed.
“I have eight or 10 people on call who will be here at a moment’s notice. The first was this guy, Matt (Nally),” Finlay said pointing to the man to his right.
The two connected.
The nationwide ride
Nally is a retired Vermont state trooper and former commander of the state police offices in Middlesex. He has sat with Finlay every Tuesday afternoon since April. They talk about what they’ve both done in their lives, when and why.
One thing Nally had done when he was younger was take a bicycle trip from coast to coast, touching his bicycle wheel in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Nally’s three sons, Matt Jr., Ian and Will, wanted to replicate the 3,563-mile, round-trip journey.
When it came time for the boys to leave, they wanted to take Finlay along for the ride.
“I have my iPad, and every day I’d push the button, and this happy face would come on,” Finlay said, pointing to Matt Nally with a smile from ear to ear. “I’d try to keep up with the boys, and he’d keep up with me. He’d fill me in on where the boys were, what they’d been doing. We shared a few — no, a lot — of laughs along the way.”
One good laugh occurred the night the boys were drenched in their sleep. But the culprit wasn’t rain.
The Nally boys were tent camping, and their dad had chosen a place to settle in for the night. They noticed several holes in the ground, but weren’t sure what they were. Moles, maybe, they thought.
In the middle of the night, the Nallys found out what those holes were really for: a sprinkler system. The Nallys had set their tent right over one of those holes, and water sprayed up through it from below.
Having been awakened and soaked, they packed up the gear, hopped on their bikes and just started on their way in the dark.
“The bicycle trip was just a delightful way to spend six weeks in bed,” Finlay said.
Finlay had not ridden a bicycle much in his life.
“The first bike I had in life didn’t last too long,” he said. “It was used. The second was out of commission after about a week and a half.”
Finlay had taken the rear wheel off to find out how the brakes worked and couldn’t figure out how to put it back together. When his mom told him to take his new bike to the grocery store, rather than fess up, he told her it was faster to walk.
He doesn’t think his mom ever found out he’d taken the bike apart.
“Eventually, I figured out how to put it back together,” Finlay laughed.
On their way back east, only two of the Nally boys continued the journey, as Matt Nally Jr. had to return to duty with the U.S. Navy once the boys reached Seattle.
On June 27, Ian and Will stopped at Finlay’s home en route home to Cabot.
“A few years ago, Doug was isolated and bed-ridden,” Willard said. “When Bonnie bought him a laptop, he started to be part of the world again.”