The Latest Chapter in Growing Old
I have a new internist. She advised me to see a cardiologist. Not because I had any new symptoms of heart issues; because I had reached a certain age, and, you know, it's about time... So I signed up for a stress test and an echocardiogram with a doctor who is a fan of the Cleveland Indians, not that that interest is in anyway pertinent, except that in my neighborhood growing up Jimmy Convery nicknamed me Rapid Robert. You can look it up.
I asked the doctor how long he expected me to live. Which seemed relevant since he was ordering tests for me that would cost Medicare a couple of thousand dollars. He resorted to the old ploy when you are being asked a question you don't want to answer directly: he turned the same question back on me. I said, "Into my nineties, I suppose." "Well, then," he replied as if it were self-evident that for another ten years on my tombstone I should be willing to suffer the indignities of baring my chest, radio-activating my veins, and answering dozens of questions like "Have you ever had a heart attack?" (No, no, not yet) by uniforms bearing stethoscopes, pleasant enough souls whom I never previously have seen or in the future are likely to see.
The tests were scheduled. And rescheduled. And rescheduled. Something about the doctors being "under the weather" and "indisposed." I muttered what Jesus said quoting his critics, "Physician, heal thyself."
Meanwhile I had a few Methodist and Williams do's to attend. At Terrace on the Park, where Hillary Clinton addressed 675 Methodists celebrating 125 years of city mission, I waited in line in the foyer to get my table assignment. In walked a couple of old men who looked familiar. One carried a cane that was the size of a shepherd's staff; his face was wizened like one of those dried apple dolls seen at Christmas in the windows at Tiffany's. The other limped in beneath a shaggy haircut. Finally it came to me who they were. They had equal difficulty identifying me. One asked if I still played basketball. "Two days ago," I lied. Schadenfreude overwhelmed me. I may be defeated by gravity, but, by golly, not as bad as they are.
The following Thursday I had my nuclear stress test, a four hour boring business while lying on a gurney listening to the irregularity of my heart ping away on the instrument of torture encircling my body.
At the football game two days later on Weston Field of Williams College I watched the boys in purple and gold lose to the boys in purple and silver, from my perch on the second row of seats (any octogenarian will understand why so low) at the 50 yard line. A classmate passed by. I yelled aloud, "Fritz!" He has missed only three home football games in the past twenty-five years. But he proceeded to tell me about his most recent absence. And I hadn't told him about my ordeal by stress test. He had undergone one three weeks earlier and, while on the treadmill, had a heart attack. Since he was already in the hospital, they immediately outfitted him with stents, inserted he explained to me, even though I was not asking, through a tiny hole in his wrist.
I guess I was lucky.
That same day over a bowl of chili beneath a large tent set up for the homecoming game alumni, the old hearts (actually the real designation rhymes) swapped stories of ancient battles and recent indignities. The two fellows with whom I sat laughed at me when I reported my cardiologist's diagnosis on Bob Howard as a-fib. They, younger than I by a couple of years, owned the same diagnosis and medication. I felt my heart strangely warmed, if not from an epiphany like Mr. Wesley's, then from the collegiality of my comrades in years.
"Misery loves company" is an adage that suffers from exaggeration and a hint of cruelty. Better to say, we all like to think we're not as bad off as the other guy. Whatever the cardiologist concludes from my tests, the experience of the past few weeks has persuaded me to stop my whining: I have been heard in recent months to state emphatically and without apparent reason, "Eighty is the pits." No one wants to hear our organ recitals as much as we like rehearsing them. I've looked around, agreed with those who declare that "growing old isn't for sissies," and discovered that if I am worse than some I am in better health than many.
So, Howard, shut up, have another slice of salami and a glass of Peroni.