Posts Tagged 'aging'

Feeling mortal

According to Merriam-Webster, the word mortal means causing or having caused death. After the events of the last seven days, I more fully understand what it means.

When I was younger, I played a silly game with myself. I’d think of my age and calculate the percentage of my life still ahead of me. For example, when I was twenty-five, I figured I’d live to the conservative age of seventy-five. So, I still had two-thirds of my life to live. It was comforting.

When I was fifty, I figured I had used up two-thirds of my probable seventy-five-year sojourn on this planet.  Since I was not a believer in the afterlife or of a micro-managing deity, it gave me little comfort to feel closer to the end than the beginning.

I’ll be eighty in a couple of months. And I no longer play that game.

When I was much younger and working for a living, I’d, more often than not, be the youngest person in the weekly staff meeting. Now younger people offer to carry groceries to my car in the Von’s parking lot, others hold open the door for me at the athletic club, and I’m always respectfully addressed as “sir.”

Last week I was driving up Sulphur Mountain Road to my house in the Upper Ojai. It had rained earlier in the day and the bone-chilling combination of high humidity and low temperature made me shiver. Even the car heater wasn’t good enough. The thick, dark cloud cover added to the dank conditions that were usually only found in Dracula movies starring either Bela Lugosi or Gary Oldman.

About a quarter-mile from my driveway, the road was partially blocked by three police cars and a troop of officers. They seemed on break, just standing idly by with their hands in their pockets, as though waiting for something to happen. I slowed the car and stopped alongside the patrol cars. And one other car that looked strangely familiar.

My neighbor Ron’s sons, Eric and Max, walked toward me. I rolled down my window and asked what was going on. Eric said “That’s my father, lying on the shoulder, covered by the yellow plastic tarp. He died here about thirty minutes ago.”

You’ve probably felt like this before. Someone says something that is so incongruous that, at first, you don’t fathom its meaning. Then it sinks in and, depending how close you’ve been to those involved, you experience some level of shock.

Ron had been our good neighbor for nearly twenty years. We had eaten together, shared stories at neighborhood parties and helped each other overcome life’s roadblocks. An inveterate and former pipe smoker, Ron had been ill for some years and his death was ordained. Nevertheless, its abrupt end on the muddy shoulder of the road he had traversed hundreds of times was unexpected. I thought he might go on indefinitely, despite the lung disease that eventually brought him to ground. I’ll miss him.

Earlier that same day, I had attended the weekly creative writing class at Help of Ojai. For many months, I’ve spent Thursday mornings listening to the stories, poems and life experiences crafted by a dozen or more gifted writers. I also offer my own brand of writing to those who are kind enough to listen. The two-hour weekly session ends with a sometimes agonizing quest to identify a restaurant that eight or more of us can abide. It’s a challenge that, at times, is more difficult than getting past the constructive criticism leveled at us by the incisive, grammatically correct class participants.

Creatures of habit, most of us regularly occupy the same seats at the large, square table, unless one is tardy and confronted by a full house. I sit next to Johan who generally is one of the first people to arrive.  Reared in South Africa, Johan offers insights into a country that only a native can tell. In truth, his writing is occasionally difficult to warm to and he is often bestowed with criticisms that are well-meant but which can also be disheartening. His ability to absorb these barbs is often tested, and I find myself caring for his fragile ego.

Last Thursday I found myself confronted by an empty chair on my right that is normally staked out by Johan. About ninety, his absence due to a cold or minor ache or pain would normally be unremarkable. Nevertheless, I did feel an eerie vacuum created by the empty chair. I missed his repartee, his signature hat and his cellphone that seemed to have a mind of its own, demonstrating it every so often by interrupting various readers with its strident, irreverent sound. At times, I thought Johan would strangle the offensive device. We ended our class and trooped to Ca’Marco for lunch…without Johan.

The next day, Friday, I arrived at Help of Ojai for my morning bus driving shift. Tina, a delightful woman who schedules the bus trips, said “I’m sorry about Johan.” My first thought was that he had been struck down by the flu or some other malady that laid him low, maybe even hospitalized. After telling Tina that I didn’t know anything about Johan, she told me that he had passed away the day before. I immediately visualized the empty chair and said, “I just sat next to him last Thursday.” And I thought, how could something like this happen so quickly, without so much as a by-your-leave. Without warning, a last good-bye, or another reading of the 123rd paragraph of his novel.

The passing of Ron and Johan on the same day caused me to focus on my own mortality. I suppose that’s normal. To measure your years alongside theirs. To think about the fickleness of death. To realize that life is fragile. To cause us to seize the opportunity, that we might otherwise delay if we were immortal. But, blessedly, our mortality brings with it the urge, even if momentarily, to do before we cannot. To love with all our heart. To be loved.

Maybe I’ll start that counting game again.

Coffee with Norm

I hadn’t seen Norm in almost two years. And then on Wednesday I bumped into him in the dairy aisle at Vons.

I had to look twice to be sure it was him. Older and grayer, he carried himself with a bit of a stoop and a little shuffle in his gait. Always kind-hearted and sensitive, his somewhat older persona fit his indelible character.

We had once been very active in the Ojai photography milieu but both of us had mostly abandoned that activity for reasons that could not be clearly enunciated by either of us. Norm had a creative streak that produced some clever and cutting-edge photos. He was one of the first to create photos without the benefit of a camera. This novel idea led to a discussion some ten years ago about whether his artwork was truly a “photo” that met the requirements for submission to the annual Ojai Art Center photo contest. It did, and it won.

Norm was kind enough to send me an email the day after our Von’s tryst that told me how much he enjoyed our brief conversation surrounded by the milk, butter and sour cream. I wrote back and, with some hesitancy, asked him if he’d like to have a cup of coffee. I knew that the death of his wife, Phyllis, nearly three years ago coincided with his withdrawal from the art scene and I wondered if he might not respond to my invitation. But he did, quickly, and we settled on Java and Joe at nine o’clock two days later.

I was already sipping my usual dark roast coffee with Splenda and cream when Norm arrived, right on time. No surprise, since he was always punctual. A lot like me, Norm did not crave the center of attention and tended to cede the podium to those more verbose than he. I hoped we’d have enough to talk about before my coffee cup was empty.

I felt a bit awkward when I told him of my engagement to Jackie. Due to what seemed a reclusive demeanor, I had assumed that Norm had not fully recovered from the death of his wife, dear Phyllis. Also talented, she had been both a prolific artist and an art teacher. Conducting classes at the Art Center, she had a large following. Her illness had gradually robbed Phyllis of her ability to continue in her usual mode. So, she moved the classes to their home. Then, as she became frailer, she employed the computer and on-line instruction. Norm told me about the last year of her life when they would combine trips to Santa Barbara hospitals and doctors with lunch at favorite restaurants, walks on the beach and much conversation. It was a happy second honeymoon for them even though the outcome was ordained.

I need not have worried about Norm’s anticipated discomfort as I talked about “my Jackie.” For he had some time ago taken up with a woman in Camarillo. Introducing her to his family led to serious consideration of their relationship. However, it was not to be and their togetherness ended short of any more formal binding. Currently happy, it was like he had attended my bereavement group when he spoke of feeling guilty while enjoying himself when Phyllis could not.

We had a bit of an organ recital and lamented on those parts of our body that did not respond as quickly as they did years ago. About five years older than me, Norm had some physical setbacks but is able to work in his garden and be entertained by his children who show up regularly to check on him. He commented on my activities with “You seem to have a full schedule.” Funny, since I often don’t feel that way. Maybe it’s my lifelong need, sometimes a curse, to stay busy.

I looked up from our conversation and saw Jackie bounce into the coffee shop. Her appearance, complete with a certain impish demeanor, immediately brightened my day. Introducing her to Norm added to my enjoyment. Her hand lovingly rubbing my shoulder completed the unexpected treat. Jackie shared some words with Norm and, knowing the right time to depart, did so with an infectious smile. When she was gone, Norm looked at me and said, “She’s just like you described her, only more so.”

We spoke of photography and the increasing difficulty of aging muscles to bear the weight of the usual assortment of professional level camera equipment. Smart phones and their increasing ability to emulate the photos taken with traditional cameras occupied the next few minutes. Norm’s visits to hospitals and doctors with Phyllis had generated an interest in watching others as they sat in waiting rooms. Using his smart phone, he shared with me some of the photos he had taken of these kindred spirits. I remarked on both the unique concept and his ability to capture the moment that showed their pain, boredom or exhilaration. I was both enthralled and jealous of his art. But probably not enough to ignite my own juices.

Norm reminisced about the time we had once spent every June, hanging selected photos on the Art Center walls in anticipation of the annual show. He and I sometimes were a team, measuring, nailing, hanging and leveling the submissions. In the midst of our thoughts he said “I remember you and Ila sitting on the couch during a break. You held hands and sang together. The sight was something so warm that I wished we could have hung it on the wall. You seemed so happy.” I couldn’t remember the occasion, but he was so pumped about it that I didn’t want to break the spell. “Yes, we did that a lot.”, I said.

Like a lot of things that grow fuzzy with age, we tend to alter their true story in ways that satisfy a need, improve its reception by the listener, or we simply forget. Some stories are told so many times that they become real. I sometimes start them with the preface “I’ve told this story so many times that I’m not sure what’s real and what’s made up.” But it doesn’t matter, so long as I can tell it.

Time passed and the extended silence between our sentences signaled the end of our conversation. I asked Norm to call me if he wanted to do this again. Wondering if we would, we deposited our coffee cups in the trash and walked to our cars. At our age, tomorrow is a lifetime.

Getting Old

When I was a student at the University of Illinois, one of the weekend highlights was to drag on down to Kam’s, the local beer joint, and slam back a few beers.  The drinking age was 21 and I was about two years short of being able to drink without risking a trip to the electric chair.

For whatever reason, probably some residual face pudginess acquired during my formative years, I seemed to be the only one that was religiously carded by the Kam’s servers.  On those nights I merely drank cokes and wrote letters to Sweetie on scraps of paper that had escaped the fate of wiping up after someone else threw up.  On luckier nights I got to drink maybe three eight-ounce beers before I was mentally and physically incapable of writing coherent phrases to the one I loved.  I still have that problem.

Fast forward to three kids, a home in the suburbs, a loss of most of my pudginess and a cessation to the embarrassment  of carding.  A long ago business trip to San Diego and a stop at Bob’s Big Boy for a grease laden burger produced a sea change in the eyes of those with a need to know how old I was.  Strolling up to the cashier with money in hand, I was prepared to pay my bill.  “Oh, you qualify for the senior discount.  Lucky you.”  I had no idea of Big Bob’s age requirement and was sure that I couldn’t possibly qualify, but who was I to forfeit an opportunity to save 10%.  “Yes, this is my lucky day thank you.”

A few years later, a vacation to free-spirited Scotland stripped me of any remaining vestigial face fat.  Riding in a shuttle driven by a really scary old man and having nothing better to do while waiting for him to drive off a bridge, we discussed the wonderfulness of aging.  Feeling lucky I said “how old do you think I am?”  Without hesitation he added about twenty years to my true atomic clock age and said “seventy-two?”  I never ask that question any more.

Last Tuesday we went to Santa Barbara, the grand city of cool breezes, the noisiest outdoor mall, and the State Street “what the hell do they sell in there” shops.  We stashed the car in the mall parking structure, checked three times that we had our parking ticket and walked down the stairs to street level.  I was catatonic by the time we reached ground zero.  No less than a dozen signs warned me that upon our return I better have my ticket and be prepared to pay by using one of those Vincent Price designed machines that take your card, snatch your money and hand you back a pass off Devil’s Island.  And don’t expect anyone to help, the signs screamed.

We ate a very tasty pulled pork sandwich on crusty bread at a cute joint that only had three items on the menu.  It still took us five minutes to figure out what we wanted.   Following the consumption of a medium-sized diet coke, we needed to pee.  What better place to do that than at the museum just up the street.  Who cares if it costs six bucks to get in even with a senior discount.  A clean toilet bowl and a waste container that doesn’t seem to be occupied by an extraterrestrial is worth the price.

Time to go home.  But first check again that we have our parking ticket.  We arrived at the parking structure and faced the Vincent Price machine.  Looked innocent enough.  Several flashing lights meant to help, instead made me feel like I was being scanned for contraband.  Finding the flashing horizontal LEDs that seemed to be lighting a runway from the movie Airport,  I spotted the words “credit card”.  No problem since I had been fingering my card for some time to the point that it was now my closest friend.  Let’s see.  Just stick it in the slot under the runway lights.

“It’s gotta go in there” I grunted as the machine put up the Berlin wall.  Why doesn’t it go in there?

A young man who was next in line to challenge the machine said “Excuse me sir, I think you might have better luck if you insert the card above the lights rather than below.”  Of course, how silly of me.

That began a series of instructions from the young man that were obviously generated by his presumption that I was a doddering old fool who would die of starvation in this parking lot if he didn’t come to my rescue.  And he did it all so gently that I didn’t have the heart to say “Shut up and leave me alone.  You who haven’t an ounce of the worldly knowledge acquired by me in the last seventy-three years.”  Meanwhile, the line of Vincent Price victims behind us began to grow exponentially.

We concluded our transaction before nightfall and, to make a point, we shunned the elevator, bounded up three flights of parking lot stairs and cleverly disguised the fact that we were out of breath.

I sat in the car and worried about the next part of the adventure that required the insertion of the now validated parking ticket into what was sure to be an another machine with a tantalyzing slot just beyond my arm’s length.  I thought about the young man and his helpfulness.  I mused about getting old and how I might take other advantages of that unavoidable condition.  And I felt good.

Count your blessings

It started out like most Mondays.  Kiss Sweetie good-bye, hop into the truck, get some gas and pull into the Help of Ojai lot.  As usual, it was cold and damp.  Not just outside, but inside Little House where the aging heating system can’t keep up with the drafts and takes its toll on the fragile ones toiling at their desks.

Eyeballing the bus manifest revealed a pretty full morning.  Most of the riders were regulars but a sprinkling of new names promised a welcome diversion.  My first pickup was Shirley, a spry 82-year-old and accomplished pianist living in a mobile home park.  “And you are?” Shirley said as I opened the automatic door and went to help her up the steps.  The reason Shirley asked who I am is not because she has memory problems.  She is blind.  Living alone, she and I have been bus pals for several years. No complainer she,  I look forward to her bus trips. Bright and bubbly, she makes me ashamed of what a whiner I can be.

We arrived before Kristy’s Nails opened.  I helped Shirley find the donut shop next door where she was warmly welcomed and offered the delicacies of the house while she waited for Kristy’s to begin its day.

Rarely do I get two clients going to Kristy’s on the same day.  But my next rider, Myrna, was headed there too.  A pedicure was in the offing as she can no longer personally handle that chore.  Arriving at St. Joseph’s I once again stared at the open area where majestic oaks once held sway.  Having been cut down before they could injure anyone, I’m anxiously awaiting some miracle that will accelerate the growth of the saplings planted a couple of years ago.  Maybe St. Joes is the right place for that miracle.

Myrna needed the lift to get aboard.  After setting her walker where neither she nor I could be impaled, we got to know each other a bit better.  “I’m 91 and my husband is 90.”  A cradle robber, I said.  “He had a stroke about eight months ago.  I live in the cottage over there and he is in the nursing building just across the road.”  Noting her English accent, she volunteered that she was born in England where she served in the RAF as an ambulance driver.  Visions of a Hemingway novel flashed through my head.

“I was worried last night and this morning that you might not be able to get this big bus and the lift into the parking lot at Kristy’s.  Didn’t want to cause you any inconvenience.  I assured Myrna that it was my solemn mission to get her nails done.

On to At Home in Ojai where I got my first wheelchair client of the day.  Margie, who professes to be at least older than my bus, arrived with an aide.  Fastening the chair in the catbird spot in the van, I asked if everything was OK.  I meant the positioning of the safety belt but Margie had a somewhat broader interpretation of my question.  “I’ve been better.”  All in all, a mild response for someone plagued by any number of old-age maladies.

Cliff was in the usual spot, leaning on his walker at the Gables.  Pushing 90 and one of the youngest pilots in World War Two, he had fallen a few months ago and was still trying to regain his old stamina.  A regular at Swanner PT, he works out a couple of times a week.  My hearing is not as good as it used to be and the squeaking and drafts of the old bus make it even harder to hear what my clients have to say.  Bless his heart, Cliff rattles on regardless of my ability to understand what he is saying.  My occasional uh-huh keeps him motivated.  Arriving at Swanner, Cliff, his cane and his walker descend from the bus and he offers his usual “Thanks so much.  I’ll call when I’m done.  Drive carefully and fasten your seatbelt.”

Toward noon I retrieved Shirley from Kristy’s and began what is affectionately known as the “lunch bunch” pickups.  Isabel, who at 94 is one of the most loving and ripest of my clients, sat down next to Shirley.  Able to climb the steps of the bus without assistance, Isabel suffers from extreme hearing loss.  Shirley, who is blind, spent the better part of two minutes trying to relate this fact to Isabel.  Having successfully communicated, Isabel both apologized for her hearing loss and offered her heartfelt sympathy for Jeanette’s blindness.  And so it went.

The bus was filled to capacity as we arrived at Help’s West Campus.  My clients clambered down the steps.  Each said thanks and wished me a Merry Christmas.  It already was.

Young at heart…

“Want to go to Theater 150 to hear the old folks sing?”  Bert, in her usual efficient way had spotted the publicity, ably developed by our neighbor Shed Behar.  “We better hurry because it will probably sell out.”  I mumbled something only heard by my inner self.

Our neighbor, Joan Rush, four other women and two men…all grandparents…were exposing themselves to the community in a way that most of us only dream of.  Get up in front of friends and relatives.  Stare into bright lights.  Hope that you don’t forget the words, miss a high note or have a heart attack.  Risk some polite applause. Go home to a stiff drink.  Then do it three more times.

We drove to the Makows, exited the car and as they appeared in the doorway I said “Quick, we don’t want to miss a minute of this.”  As usual, I mentally slapped myself for the sarcasm and promised to be a good boy for the rest of the evening.

We made all the lights coming into town, turned right on Montgomery, left on Matilija and grumbled when all the parking spots immediately in front of the former funeral parlor, now Theater 150, were full.  I drove a hundred feet down the street, parked and mentally calculated how long it would take to get to the car once the performance ended.  The four of us began the two minute trek to the theater entrance.  We were not alone.

The billboard in front of the theater proudly announced This weekend’s performances are sold out—Sorry.  A fourth performance had been added to accommodate the demand.  I wondered “how many friends and relatives can these seven people possibly have?”  Aryna, an ever present and supportive figure at our local events had similar thoughts when she asked me “Who is it that brings you here this evening?”

The lobby, more of a wide aisle than a lobby, was filled with people who looked like they were still celebrating New Year’s Eve.  Probably because two glasses of free wine were included in the ticket price.  I wondered if they would be refreshing drinks during the performance.  Maybe delivered through the same kind of device that Jack Nicholson conjured up for that poor, bedridden guy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

There are no bad seats at Theater 150.  Unless you count the half dozen or so straight backed, hard wood Torquemada seats along the east wall that, after thirty minutes, bring new meaning to the word posture.  Like most other community theaters, you are close enough to count the pores in the performer’s face.  So close that you cannot risk being discovered in sleep mode.

We settled into our seats, the lights dimmed and The Nanas and The Papas appeared.  As usual I had counted the number of songs listed in the playbill’s first act, fully intending to begin a countdown as a way of making the time pass.  I only managed to get to number one.

They were a delight.  Sharing funny and poignant experiences as grandmas and grandpas, they mesmerized the crowd.  It didn’t matter whether they squeaked during songs and creaked a bit as they moved about.  It was all part of an endearing performance.  I was reminded of the time Sweetie and I saw Carol Channing in her eighties in Hello Dolly.  Needing help across the stage, she managed to captivate us.

Okay, so I’m an old guy with memories.  And these songs were all about memories, youth and time.  I Remember It Well, When I’m 64, Children Will Listen and Young at Heart made me smile and remember what it was like and what is yet to be.  Even though my only French expression, omelette du fromage, was learned from a Steve Martin comedy album, I was seduced by Carol Kornhaber’s rendition of La Vie En Rose.  The finale, Forever Young, stayed with us all the way up the Dennison Grade.

Surprises help make life worthwhile.

I remember her when…

I drove the Help of Ojai bus this morning.  Pretty busy with regulars as well as a couple of new faces.  Brought a book with me just in case there was a big chunk of downtime.   There wasn’t.

First, I escorted two folks to Oak Tree House, the day care center for those who have dimmed a bit, and for others who just find the company at Oak Tree an improvement from the usual routine.  The House also gives caregivers a much needed break.

After grabbing some coffee at Java and Joes, I drove to At Home in Ojai, one of the senior board and care facilities in our aging metropolis.  At Home has gone through some changes.  My impression is that the current managers are caring, efficient and pleasant.

I knew who I was picking up.  But I was a little surprised to find her there.  I’d lost track of her in the last year or two.  Her house, the one that I used to find her at, was sold last year.  I’d assumed she’d gone to live with family, maybe moved out of the area.  Or worse.

The manifest said she would be in a wheelchair.  The last time I picked her up at her Green Street home she had a little trouble navigating.  But she didn’t use a walker or need the lift.  So a wheelchair was a bit of a shock, even for me.  Me, who spends most of Monday mornings folding/unfolding walkers and tying down wheelchairs so folks don’t get prematurely ejected from the bus.

I arrived At Home, lowered the lift, rang the doorbell, and told the aide who I was looking for.  We walked around the gate and up the neatly manicured, shady driveway.  “Don’t tell her she’s going to the doctor” the aide confided.  Not a good sign.

I spotted her, sitting outside in a wheelchair, next to a similarly seated woman of about the same age.  “Hi ladies, how are you today?” I said smiling.  “What do you mean?” her companion said.  I changed the subject and directed my attention to my old friend.  “I used to pick you up at your house on Green Street” I said, hoping to spark a glimmer of recognition.  “Green Street?”  We began our march to the bus.

While getting the chair fastened to the bus moorings, I continued our conversation, most of it one-way.  Seating myself behind the wheel, we began the ten minute drive to the doctor’s office.  I could have driven past her old house, but didn’t.  It was a long ten minutes.

I remember her when.  When she would have a clever comeback to something I’d say.  I remember how concerned she was about where Ojai was headed.  The loss of personal contact between elected officials and the rest of us.  Her gratitude for the bus rides, the companionship, the service to the community.  I remembered a bright, caring lady.

About an hour after dropping them at the doctor’s, I got a call that she was ready for the return trip.  We went through the same routine.   “How’d it go?” I asked while adjusting her seat belt.  She looked up at me and her eyes sharpened.  “How’d it go?” she said in a way that I knew meant “How do you think it went?  I’m stuck in this chair.  I’m old.  I’m forgetful.  I’m not in my own house.  What a way to live.”

It was another long ten minutes.

anti-aging


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