Archive for the 'Aging' Category

A Look Inside

My annual physical is usually uneventful. A little high blood pressure partnered with an aging prostate have been my only close, chronic companions for many years. But this year a new friend came calling.

If you’re old enough, you’ve probably done that little test that involves the toilet, a flip card with three distinct slots and some wooden sticks like the ones that remain after you down a cherry popsicle. It’s a routine exercise that looks for suspicious characters who can wreak havoc in your colon.

A call from Barbara in Dr. Halverson’s office began the adventure. “Hello Fred, it’s Barbara. We found some microscopic blood in your stool and Dr. Halverson wants you to have a colonoscopy.” Barbara makes the calls that you’d rather not receive. She does it so well that at first you think she’s inviting you to a birthday party. And then it dawns on you. This is no party. This is serious business. Oh crap, I said without thinking of the possible pun. Images and scary thoughts floated through my head at lightning speed. All were X-Rated.

I called Dr. Covington’s office. The doctor and my colon have been close friends for about twenty years. He’s peered inside of it twice during routine colonoscopies without discovering anything of concern. But this was different. You need a preliminary office visit after which we can schedule the procedure. The impersonal voice on the phone wasn’t concerned about my colon and booked me for a visit two weeks hence. I thought Two weeks. Too much time to think. Too many scenarios to ponder.

But, like time will do, two weeks passed and I presented myself to Natasha, Dr. Covington’s physician assistant who took my blood pressure and scrolled through my medical history. “Yes, you should have a colonoscopy”, Natasha announced. It was comforting to know that the medical establishment was of a common mind. The procedure was etched into Dr. Covington’s schedule and I continued to consider possible outcomes, the most probable of which would not be found in a Dr. Seuss book.

The night before the procedure is laughingly called prep time. The Medicine Shop had kindly provided all of the essentials. Two six-ounce bottles of ghastly liquid, a sixteen-ounce plastic mixing container and a set of instructions and no-no’s that I dutifully read several times. Some years ago, before cooler heads prevailed, I had the pleasure of downing a silo full of liquid intended to wash out the colon. That grueling experience would have been adopted as an Olympic event had it not been replaced by the more innocuous six-ounce bottles. On this occasion, the current, less onerous procedure proved quite effective.

In the morning, my good friend and neighbor Yoram drove me to the colonoscopy center. The parking lot was full, populated by cars whose owners had empty, squeaky clean colons. The waiting area, behind a fortified door fit for a bank, was packed with apprehensive patients and their keepers.

Looking at the rows of glum faces, I spotted my friend Alan and his wife, Margo. “They’re running about a half-hour behind schedule.” Settling in for the long haul, I made idle chit-chat with Margo while Alan waited for his call to duty. His turn came and he walked the green mile through the double doors and into the preparation area.

My turn came about thirty minutes later. Lifting myself from the chair, I followed Nurse Ratched into the prep area where I removed my clothes, dutifully slipped beneath the sheet and waited. My personal assistant, a lovely RN, arrived and poked my arm with a probe seeking the fountain of youth. Or, save that, a working vein. Failing to do that, she then focused on my hand and deftly slipped the needle into the most sensitive part of my arm and announced, like Ponce de Leon, Eureka, I have found it.

My friend Alan, having completed the expedition into his colon, lay next to me. We spoke of the grand and glorious things that had been revealed by his colonoscopy, the current state of politics in this country, and the benefits of old age…which did not take very long.

We were one hour behind schedule when I was wheeled into a room that looked like it needed redecorating. Two lovely assistants made sure I knew who I was and told me that this would be over quickly. They donned outfits complete with face masks that reminded me of the costumes worn by the nuclear reactor bad guys in the James Bond movie Doctor No. I felt a little apprehensive, as all I had on was a K-Mart bed sheet.

Dr. Covington appeared and introduced himself for the third time in twenty years. I excused his lapse of memory for faces, since he normally focuses on the opposite end of his guest’s body. He said “Here come the meds.” And the next thing I knew I was standing by my gurney putting on my shoes.

It was all over but the shouting. Friend Yoram relayed the news from Dr. Covington. No bleeding, one small polyp removed. Nothing to worry about…except the seven days’ wait for the biopsy results. I sent some text messages. All is well and the usual stuff you add to relieve the stress. We had a hazy lunch at a restaurant that I will never be able to find again.

That evening I went to bed early. Awaking around 3am, I tried to reconstruct the last fifteen hours. I vaguely recalled Yoram’s prognosis but I questioned the accuracy of my memory. Had I really heard the findings as I now recalled them or was I hallucinating? I remembered the text messages and got out of bed to check my phone. There they were…including one that reminded me of the seven days of waiting for the biopsy results. Like opening an old scab.

Is life at my age a series of medical events, each one with the potential to seriously alter hopes and dreams? Does one live life fullest between annual physicals? Does time pass too quickly, with a cloud hovering over us like Al Capps’ Joe Btfsplk?

Seven days passed and I was able to push the biopsy to the furthermost corner of my mind. Not completely forgotten, but not preeminent.

Tuesday the phone rang and I missed the call. A message had been left by an 805 number I did not recognize. I listened to the call.  Hello, this is Doctor Covington’s office… Time stopped and I reviewed the possible second sentence scenarios at warp speed. I thought the rest of the message would never find its way to my ear. But it did. The polyp was benign. See you in five years.

The clouds lifted. It was time for a song. One that celebrates life and makes us live it while we can.

Bravo!

Saturday I went to the Art Center. On Montgomery just south of Ojai Avenue, the Center has been around many years. The “Art” in Art Center is all-encompassing. Paintings decorate the walls whenever there is a special exhibit. Photographs have their place in the sun once or twice a year. Music fills the vacant space when featured artists ply their wares to those of us who can manage the folding chairs that so often cause my fanny to wish the show was over.

The Art Center also hosts legitimate theater. Musicals, comedies and dramas are staged by volunteers who take their roles seriously, without pay, both behind the scenes and as performers.

It was with some trepidation that I pondered Sheila’s invitation to accompany her and Sid to Bakersfield Mist, the current offering at the Center. While the cast works hard for all plays, some performances are occasionally shaky and leave me with memories that make it harder to give the next offering a fair shake. I go anyway, hoping to find my concerns unwarranted.

Evening performances are challenging…for me, not the performers. A glass of wine with dinner tests my ability to remain upright in my seat. I begin to lose my focus, my lids feel like they weigh five pounds each, and my head slowly begins a downward spiral that culminates in the loss of all my senses. Except for occasional sensory interruptions, I could remain comatose through an entire first act. I dread repeating the event that occurred some years ago when I sat in the front row, fell asleep and then awoke to find the leading man staring directly at me with laser-like precision. I remained rigidly awake and unblinking for the balance of the performance.

So, bursting with low expectations, I went to the Center. And I was rewarded with a delightful, sorrowful play that was one-act, ninety minutes long, without intermission. Periodically testing my bladder content did not ruin the performance. The cast had only two actors, both perfectly suited to their roles.

Ninety minutes shot by. The audience erupted and stood up as one, without the customary survey of the crowd to determine whether a standing ovation was warranted. I admit that I normally feel pushed into the obligatory standing mode without really meaning it. On this occasion, I did not need any prodding. Bravo.

Acting and reacting is not limited to the legitimate theater. The Gables is a retirement facility on the other end of Montgomery in mid-town Ojai. A complex of buildings from the 1950’s, it is walking distance to the Art Center, but miles away in the people it serves and the activities offered to them.

On Friday, the Music Festival brought the Bravo Program to the Gables. Bravo caters to school aged children. In large part, the program fosters an appreciation for music to kids as young as five or six. I have regularly been asked to take photos of these educational activities, which usually occur in Ojai Valley public school classrooms.

On this occasion, the Gables had invited third grade children from two local schools to entertain the seniors in residence. I and my camera arrived in the Gables community meeting room just as the senior participants were taking their chairs. Most were in their 70’s and 80’s, and all were women. Some were in wheelchairs. Others had personal assistants.

About twenty kids were accompanied by two young, inordinately lovely teachers. Bounding into the room with all the energy of eight-year-olds, they took up positions in the space made by the admiring seniors. Laura, the Bravo leader, engaged the children in a few warm-up musical exercises that included songs and a bit of dancing.

Prompted by Laura, the kids then made their way to the seated seniors. Selecting a senior of their choice, each child offered a hand, introduced themselves and engaged the seniors in conversation. A bit cautious at first, the children and the seniors warmed to the occasion. An explosion of smiles filled the room and the sound of both young and old voices merged into a playful crescendo.

Seniors who were able, rose from their seats and assumed what could best be described as a conga line. Along with the children, they began a twisty-turny parade that brought delight to the faces of the marchers as well as to the less able sitters.

I found myself taking photos with abandon. Happiness shone from elderly faces that perhaps have had too few similar opportunities. I hardly knew where to point my camera as the choices were unlimited. Children of that age are unbridled and have sweet faces that demand to be captured in a photo. On this day, these lucky seniors shared those characteristics and the beauty of the moment.

Frowns and any reluctance to participate were not in attendance. Seniors became enthusiastic children willing to learn, while children became aware of their ability to brighten lives that perhaps needed it.

Toward the end of the morning, Laura asked the children if anyone wanted to say something about their trip to the Gables. Half of the eight-year-olds met expectations by freely speaking their mind with uncensored abandon. I liked meeting old people. I think they’re just like us. It was really nice performing for real people. I’m really happy they’re still alive.

The next day I began the usually tedious job of selecting and editing the most promising photos. However, on this occasion I was disappointed when my work ended. Through the marvel of Photoshop I had relived those precious moments when young and old had come together to brighten the other.

Lives had been enriched…mine included.  Bravo.

Older but wiser

My son David has religiously organized a biannual fishing trip that had its genesis in 1997 in Baja, California. It has since expanded its horizons to include other U.S. and foreign ports of call.

Named the “Chrysler”, it includes about a dozen loyal participants, all intent on drinking as much alcohol as possible, sometimes to salve the egos of those who didn’t catch fish. Eating large quantities of food often includes the raw flesh of those unfortunate fish who managed, albeit reluctantly, to become part of the bill of fare.

Staying up late is a required component of the adventure, often accompanied by participant music making late into the night, cigars, and more alcohol. Because one’s eyes are larger than one’s ability to retain the libations and sustenance put before them, many a morning has been spent kneeling before the enamel throne while praying for relief and forgiveness. Murmurings of “I’ll never do this again” often accompanies the numerous toilet flushes.

The origin of the event’s name, “Chrysler”, is somewhat hazy. It is emblazoned on the unique designs that appear on cheap tee shirts awarded to the attendees as compensation for the vast sums spent on the event. Other awards are also presented. These include the “Woody”, an ancient wooden erect penis that originally graced some long-forgotten garage sale. Presented to the member catching the largest fish, it often becomes the subject of much discussion. For example, does “largest” mean length or does it mean weight? Much alcohol has been drunk and spilled as the members attempt to fathom the meaning that the Chrysler founders intended.

Other awards such as the Dolan and Fancy Pants also dignify the proceedings; however, the Chrysler award itself is the most coveted one of them all. Cloaked in regal splendor, the Chrysler award is, in fact, a real Chrysler. Not a full-sized, fuel guzzling vehicle, but an eight-inch toy car haphazardly nailed to a plaque. Earning the right to be the current year’s Chrysler winner is no easy feat.

The criteria for gaining temporary ownership of the Chrysler is often compared to winning the Stanley Cup, the World Series pennant or the Vince Lombardy trophy. However, in contrast to those rather well-known and easily understood sporting awards, the criteria for winning the Chrysler is not stipulated. The winner of the award is often unaware why he was chosen from all the others. In some cases, he may have passed out during much of the three-day event and was therefore oblivious to the rationale for his success.

Over the years, Chrysler participants have retained or strengthened many of their characteristic traits, especially alcohol consumption. Along the way, a few lucky women joined the elite ranks previously barred to the fairer sex. Aging has taken its toll as evidenced by graying and thinning hair, a few wrinkles, a bit of a paunch and an increase in worldliness and sagacity. This includes yours truly.

I hadn’t attended a Chrysler for many years but decided to reinstate my membership this year. Approaching my seventy-ninth year, I was more than twenty years older than the average Chrysler participant. With religious fervor and with the event in mind, I have been going to the gym to improve my body and mind. My paunch hasn’t been flatter in ten years and I am able to hike significant distances and elevations without falling on my face. I regularly refuse the help of others who offer to carry my groceries or wish to relinquish their seat to me. I was sure I could keep up with the younger Chryslers. Alas, I couldn’t.

I was able to walk with the best of the Chrysler guys and lift my carry-on suitcase into the Delta overhead compartment without assistance. I stayed up reasonably late during the three-day marathon and had minimal sleep. And that’s where my prowess ended.

For example, walking down the long flight of stairs at our ante-bellum New Orleans home proved to be a challenge. Wanting to look macho as I descended the stairs, I did a poor imitation of throwing caution to the wind. With my Mr. Magoo bifocals adding an unwelcome handicap, I was a sad sight as I bumped along, gripping the railing while doing my best imitation of Walter Brennan.

Cabbing was a problem. Thirteen of us required multiple Uber vehicles, some with a third seat that necessitated clambering over or through the second row of seats. Anxious to show my agility, I usually chose the third seat and managed to squeeze my way in. Exiting was another story. I spent a good deal of time on my knees, and willingly reached out my fingers to grasp at least one helping hand that would prevent me from falling face first into the gutter. So much for balance.

As the trip wore on, I wondered why I seemed to be aging rapidly. After all, I didn’t seem to have these problems in Ojai. And then it struck me. I wasn’t getting older. No, I had just inadvertently surrounded myself with a phalanx of younger people. I was usually with people closer to my age to whom I compared favorably. I just needed to find those older people and reinsert myself into their midst.

So I came home to Ojai and went to the athletic club. I hopped onto the treadmill between two lovely older women and sneaked a furtive look at the speed and grade that they had set on their machines. I set mine a notch above theirs. At the end of my one hour, three-mile trek I smiled and felt much younger. I’ll do the same thing again tomorrow. Hope those ladies show up.

 

Time is a fickle thing

Went to the creative writing class last Thursday at Help of Ojai. Lots of nice people and lots of good words jumping from the carefully crafted pages brought to the class by the participants. Some laughs, some sadness, lots of praise. And lunch too.

I had the pleasure of sitting next to Jeff at the long table set for ten of us by the folks at the Soule Park dining room. An inviolate prerequisite for our selected lunch venue is the restaurant’s willingness to write separate checks. Food is important but separate checks are essential.

Due to the table configuration, conversation typically involves two, maybe three people. This time it was just Jeff and I. Listening to Jeff’s poems for four weeks had impressed with their construct and, most of all, their thoughtful content. A liberal like me and about as ancient, I had found a kindred soul.

We shared a little of our backgrounds and had a brief organ recital. I told Jeff that my loving wife, Ila, had passed away about seven months ago. And then the thought sprang on me as it often does…seven months, why does it seem like seven years?  I reminded myself that I regularly count the months, weeks and days since August 23, the day she left my embrace. And maybe that’s why time defies me and almost stands still. No matter the passage of time, the pain is never going away. It will lessen but thankfully never depart.

I think that just about everything else in my aging soul seems to be moving at the speed of light. Why do some things move at a glacial pace while others dare me to put a hand up in an effort to stop the world from spinning out of control…like those amazing ice skaters who dare you to keep up with them as they seem to be spinning into another universe.

There are some things that are so wonderful that I want them to never end. Yet they will, and they move so quickly that I am scared. Scared that I’m aging and know that one day I will be deprived of the things I love. How soon? Better not to know.

There are times that loved things move like honey from a spoon, slowly, creating anguish as I wait for the sweet taste to arrive. Yet when the joy of its taste is finally available, it moves quickly from me at roller coaster speed while I hold onto it, struggling to keep its sweetness just a little longer.

Jackie went to a seven-day retreat in San Diego last week. I told her I’d be ok in Ojai and that she should enjoy herself. Sunday was ok, Monday too. By Tuesday, I was looking for her in every part of my mind. In every ring of the phone and every sound that announced a text message. Wednesday produced little sleep. Thursday and Friday promised not her imminent return, but a prolonged feeling of deprivation that would never end. Text messages and phone calls produced a bit of relief and even some poetry. “It’s still raining. Very softly. Like your skin under my finger-tips.”

Sunday arrived. I drove the usual fifteen minutes to her home but it felt like thirty. I knocked but didn’t see her through the glass. I went in. Her hair dryer was making the sweetest noise I had heard in a week. I followed the sound to the bathroom. The sight of her drying hair framed in the light surrounding the mirror made my heart leap.

She was home and so was I. Time began its inevitable roller coaster ride. And we were both on it for as long as it would last.

Writer’s Block

Writer’s block. That must be the reason I can’t finish what I start.

I’ve tried so many times to pen my thoughts. Write an introductory remark, something grabby to keep the reader from abandoning my blog to read any one of a zillion others, all seeking fame through writing.

So I start to write. Pretty good intro I think, but what’s next? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Maybe I’ll put the Word document away for a day or so until the mind clears and I can continue to write and…oh crap, who am I kidding. It seems so unimportant. So meaningless compared to other things in my life that yell “Focus on me…me, me…you’re not getting any younger you know. You’ve got limited time and I’m begging you to fill it with me before you fall apart completely, unable to think rationally or perform life’s functions.” Surely there must be something that’s of interest to my legion of readers. The economy, the buffoon in the Oval Office, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the unraveling of our social fabric, the buffoon in the Oval Office.

Oh, wait a minute, the Super Bowl. Dummy. You watched it from beginning to end. You reveled in watching the hated Patriots go down to defeat. You can write about how people take great pleasure in the dethroning of others. But it’s too late, Thousands of others have already written about the game and posted it on the web for the world to see. I’d be repeating their words without even knowing it. Come on, smart guy. There must be something else in your bag of tricks. Or is your life so dull that writing about it leaves an emptiness in your head, a sour taste in your mouth, a lifeless feeling of what’s the use?

How can that be? I went to Rotary, didn’t I? But I didn’t join. I started driving the old folks bus again. But I used my hernia as an excuse to delay my re-entry. I joined a creative writing group but can’t create. My presentations are limited to stuff I wrote months ago. Am I really that dull?

Wait. I love the woman in my life. And she’s far from dull. Always moving, always surprising, always ready to try anything. And encouraging me to ride along. I do so relish the opportunity. It’s changed my life in so many ways. Some frightening, most exhilarating, all new and challenging. Surely I can find something in those experiences that will interest you. Make you smile. Make you part of it. Make you lust for more.

Ah, but it’s so personal. I can’t possibly reveal everything about her. Certainly not in mixed company. It’s just not done. I’d blush and begin to mumble. And then you’d want more of what I really should keep veiled, accessible only to me. Only to pleasure me. To make my words so enticing and so mysterious that you say “Hey Fred, that’s not fair. Trust us, you can tell us anything. We promise not to tell on you. Come on, give us just a tiny bit more. You owe it to us. We all share our stories don’t we…maybe not as exciting as yours but nevertheless meaningful to us. Don’t be a spoil sport. Man up. Show us you can write. We’re waiting. Got other things to do. So come on…before we press the escape key and go somewhere else. You’ll be sorry.”

Oh crap. There it goes again. Thought I had something of interest to say to you but it’s slipped away. So many great words to share and I haven’t a clue what to say. Maybe tomorrow.

Sweetie Died

My one and only Sweetie died last week. She wrestled with Alzheimer’s for seven years and it finally took its toll.

It’s like peeling an onion. The first piece is your short-term memory. You will ask the same question over and over. Next comes a jumble of long-term memories. We’ll remove your ability to enjoy music, movies and live entertainment. Crowds will be your adversary. Your appetite will diminish and you will forget how to use a knife and fork. Your sweetheart will cut your food into bite size pieces. You’ll eat a lot of chocolate ice cream but not much else.

We’ll make dressing yourself a chore that takes more precious time away from living. You will forget how to tie your shoes. Along the way we’ll even add a few things, like headaches and pain. Or wild dreams that cause you to sit upright in bed and yell at the dark intruders. You’ll constantly repeat the same stories and create ones that are more fantasy than fact. You will visit the hospital ER several times and stay in the hospital some nights where you’ll rail against being there.

We’ll make you think you live someplace else other than your home. And wonder if your parents are still alive and do they know where you live. People will arrive who want to take care of you but you’ll swear at them and tell them to get the hell out of here or you’ll call the police. Your sweetheart will try to cope but he will feel much of your pain and anguish. Your sole entertainment will be getting in the car, driving into town, turning around and going home. Getting out of the car in your garage and walking to the house will become a terrible adventure.

Your sweetheart will turn his back for an instant and you will fall in the bathroom. And then you will fall a few more times. He will call the fire department to come and lift you from the floor, and you will tell them to mind their own business. You will finally get to bed, the paramedics will leave and he will wait for it to happen all over again.

You’ll sleep a lot on the chair in the sun room, the soft one in front of the fireplace and the couch in front of the TV. In a lucid moment, you’ll sit on the edge of the couch and say “I can’t do this anymore.”

Eventually you’ll have a caregiver because your sweetheart is exhausted. The hospice nurses will visit every day. They will bring a hospital bed, a walker, a wheelchair and other things that you thought you would never need. They will know things about life and death that only come from doing it over and over again.

You’ll fall asleep for days. Then, without warning, you will be gone. And your sweetheart will feel his heart bursting from his chest. And he will be alone for the first time in fifty-seven years.

And everything will remind him of you. He will fill his time by crying. And he will love you more than ever.

Simple Pleasures

Did you ever listen to friends describe their latest adventures?

“Uzbekistan was amazing. So many things to see. The people were great. Can’t wait to do it again.”

“Our trip to New York was mind-blowing. Had to book tickets to Hamilton two years in advance…worth every penny. You should go.”

“The Falkland Islands were one of the top five events in my life. I’ll never forget the sheep in the road. Weather was perfect. Never knew there were so many ways to prepare mutton.”

Time was that I would think “Why aren’t I doing things like this?  I must be missing out on life.”

Probably so.

But things being what they are, Sweetie and I tend to find pleasure in simpler things. Things that don’t involve shleps to the airport, uncomfortable plane seats, annoying children and rude adults.

Like yesterday.

The library foundation bookstore is closing for a major rebuild. We wanted to sell lots of books so that we could avoid moving them to temporary storage while we build the new structure.  We volunteered for the 2:30 shift and arrived to find very little activity. One or two customers, much like a normal day. So since we weren’t really needed, we excused ourselves and went for a walk.

One of our favorite places is Rains department store. A venerable institution serving the community for over a hundred years. Weekends are pretty busy in the store but on most weekdays you can call the store your own. We hardly ever leave without buying something. Sort of like freshly marking our territory.

There’s a wooden bench just off the main aisle in the women’s department. I’m sure it’s intended to allow the ladies to sit and try on the shoes that are cloistered in the area around the bench. It looks uncomfortable but the bench’s shape sort of matches my fanny so I can sit for a while before I develop calluses or bone spurs. We often alight on that bench and stare at the dozen or so women’s shoes that beckon to be tried on.

Spending thirty minutes or so sitting on a wood bench in Rains’ shoe department may not sound very exciting. And it’s not. So to lighten things up, we sometimes pretend that we are on a cruise. At other times we pretend that we are waiting for a city bus to come rolling down the department store aisle. In either case, we must look odd to the sales people and to the customers. But, being old, most observers simply assume we’ve got nothing better to do and ignore us.

Yesterday was special, though. I began staring at the array of shoe boxes stacked directly ahead of me.  About thirty of them in about six stacks.  All the same brand. I zeroed in on the 3×5 stickers glued to the end of each box that announced the style number and shoe size of the contents. I wondered “Are all those labels glued to the box by hand or is there some clever piece of machinery that does it?” I compared the placement of each label and the amount of empty space surrounding each. My suspicion was that they were hand applied. But I couldn’t be certain. So I asked Sweetie for her wise counsel. Recognizing a unique opportunity, she smiled and immediately bought into the adventure. Carefully eyeballing the boxes and measuring her response, she said that she was certain beyond a reasonable doubt that a machine was doing the deed. Good enough for me.

Having some time remaining in our busy schedule, I then focused on the boxes themselves. I was surprised that each shoe size seemed to have a box whose dimensions were tailored to the size of the contents. What a revelation! Sweetie was not nearly as excited as me since she claimed to already be aware of the shoe box size protocol. Probably because she has more shoes than I do.

So there you are. A relatively inexpensive adventure that did not require a plane trip, questionable accommodations, tickets bought two years in advance, or the need to learn a foreign language.

Now won’t that be an amazing story to tell our friends when they return from the Galapagos?


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