Getting On and Over the Years
There's something your doctor can't tell you. When you get up in years. Can't, not won't, because maybe [s]he would if gifted with what, we called in my trade in bygone years, "a consecrated imagination." My internist might qualify according to that measure, but I haven't pushed her that far. My former cardiologist, however, flunked out. Sometime during our second and final tête-à-tête he asked me if I felt as good as I thought I should. When I responded with "How should I feel?" he beat a hasty retreat without a word.
That's what your doctor can't tell you, my dear senior citizen: how it feels to be eighty, and, more to the point, how you should expect to feel. And the reason the medical profession is largely deficient on this matter is that they aren't old enough, haven't lived long enough to experience the erosions of accumulated age.
I confess to a similar deficiency during my fifty years as a pastor. Among the duties I assigned myself was taking communion into the homes of shut-ins, not a few of whom were in various degrees of dementia. Three times a year I would drive east and west, as far as fifty miles to Westhampton and dear Viola, to offer the bread and cup to congregants immured in skilled nursing facilities. At the end of such days I would return home and sink into a recliner from exhaustion, more the spiritual kind than the physical. Not from want of trying, I usually failed to enter into the mind and heart of the soul sitting beside me on her bed. Yes, I sensed the monumental effort made on my behalf to be alert. I heard the voiced frustration with containment within four walls. I guided the cup to the lips of those whose hands trembled uncontrollably. Mostly I carefully avoided the obvious question about what comes next, because it would be as depressing for me as for the congregant. Sympathy is blessed, but it only goes so far. After those excursions with my communion kit it seemed to me I had been visiting another species; and I was humbled and frustrated by my failure... to be sufficiently old?
Simply put, aging is a process during which we must learn to live with diminished expectations for ourselves. As I repeat to any younger person who will listen, "Eighty is the pits." My toolbox is filled with shiny tools. The winterized mower stays winterized. The extension ladder hasn't touched my foot in three years. Blinking fluorescent bulbs in the basement blink on. Broken bricks in the patio stay broken. And... well, you get the picture... and what it is the doc cannot tell you, about growing old as the season of diminished expectations.
When I tried this rueful theme on my gym buddies, they scoffed and said in so many words, get over it, Howard, nothing new here, the aging process starts at twenty. Like a latter day Greek chorus, albeit one in bathing suits and less, they chanted (or so I thought), "Qwitchyerbitching."
And consider the upside of growing old. Like the solicitousness which greets you at every hand. Especially those close at hand. My dear partner for nearly sixty years seems obsessed with making life easier for me, so much so that on occasion I have asked somewhat guiltily, "Do I seem that frail?.. cranky?... tired?" Ditto for daughters.
Once upon a long time ago, when the grandsons living with us were rambunctious kindergarteners, I would occasionally pick them up and carry them up the stairs to bed. I would explain that what I was doing for them they would someday be expected to do for me. That day is nearer now than ever. And I am flattered to think the boys will accept the chore for the old man with smiles and the comment, "Like you said, Pa."
Better yet, when you're old enough you accept the solicitousness, if not as a right, as an honor bestowed. Last Sunday I drove on to the church property and would have turned into the parking lot nearest the church entrance, the one reserved for "First Time Visitors." An attendant waved me away. I opened the car window and said, "I'm eighty-three." He was ready to step aside but some other eighty-three year old had beaten me to the empty space; and there was no room in the inn for Bobby. But a point had been scored and acknowledged!
So if I cavil, I also celebrate: the 10% discount at Dunkin Donuts; the door held open a little longer; the patience of those to whom I request, "Say that again"; any ticket taker who unnecessarily asks me if I am over 65; any venue, ballpark, concert, or worship where I don't have to walk forever (or so it seems) to get there; the only two places where my previous life is acknowledged with the honorifics "Rev" or "Pastor," the service station and the locker room (with its truth- telling Greek chorus); prosthetic knees that never hurt like the rest of me; a home warmed or cooled as the meteorology requires and no matter what it delivers to Fox Chase Lane; a pet dog that shadows me day and night and pees on command; and another Greek chorus of website readers, like you, generous in approvals and honest (mostly) in assessments of my offerings, considering the age from which they originate.
LG. Genesis insists. I concur.