AGONY AND ECSTASY
It's Friday afternoon and the four of us are seated around the card table. We've been playing Canasta together every Friday afternoon for almost five years. The very first time we dealt the cards, the person across from each of us became a life partner. It's been Us vs. Them ever since.
We've all developed our own Canasta personality. Charlotte, my partner, takes risks with her cards that no other player in their right mind would ever consider. She's also the scorekeeper and Canasta cop. Her responsibilities include making sure no one manufactures wild cards in their lap, correcting the players who add an extra 500 points to their score, and waking up the dreamers.
Roberta is known for her kindhearted nature and remarkable ability to take a nap just when it's her turn to draw the next card. She has a lovely smile and infectious giggle. As chief shuffler, she's stepped up to the position with grace and elegance. Don't be fooled by her sweetheart demeanor, though; her skill at the table belies her easy-going exterior.
Then there's Eva. She has the eyes of a hawk and the memory of a twenty-year-old. Well into her eighties, she's quiet and mild-mannered. Her every move is shrewd and calculated. She takes her time, and you'd never guess that her tacks are razor-edged. She knows exactly what you have in your hand.
All senior citizens, we usually begin our weekly games by briefly describing the status of our major body parts, ongoing ailments, and any new afflictions that have beset us or our loved ones within the past week. We're not complaining, mind you -- just reporting. It's almost like what happens in a hospital at shift change.
"Mrs. Stevens has less pain today and is eating better," says the morning nurse to the evening nurse.
During one of our reports a few weeks ago, Charlotte announced, "These golden years are awfully tarnished, aren't they!" We laughed. It was such a clever -- no -- realistic way to describe old age.
Who among us hasn't looked forward to retirement and the idyllic life of the senior citizen? With none of the worries and distractions of work and parenting, we imagine an abundance of leisure time filled with travel, hobbies, friends and family. How sweet they'll be, the golden years!
But only in your imagination . . .
Ask anyone who is of that age. Golden, I mean. Is that the way they spend their days?
Not me and not the people I know. My golden years aren't anything like that. One day may be a visit to the Orthopedist for an injection of cortisone. Another may be a CAT scan to check on the mechanics of my faulty digestive process, the next to the physical therapist who's failing to cure my Achilles Tendonitis, and the following day for a hearing aid adjustment. And then there's all the time I spend accompanying my husband to his medical appointments!
Oh wait, there's more. There's all the life-changing decisions with which most seniors struggle: Are we going to install an elevator in our three-story house or move to a retirement community? How do we manage our activities of daily living without breaking a hip? How do we decide which items on our bucket list have to eliminated because we won't have enough time to do them? Are we going to outlive our money? And, when should we stop skydiving?
My dance card is full, but not with the activities I looked forward to in retirement.
"When the alarm rings in the morning, I lay immobile," I say in response to Charlotte's witty comment. "I'm afraid to get out of bed until I take an inventory of my movable body parts to determine which one hurts more."
Everyone shakes their heads in agreement.
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Roberta replies knowingly. "I take ridiculous precautions not to create even more discomfort for myself. When I'm sure it's safe, I roll over to my side and then carefully consider my next move. Strategy is an essential step in arising because my body is always threatening to lock up and leave me permanently in the fetal position and . . . "
"How well I know." I interrupt. "I raise my head from the pillow, push myself to an upright position with my good arm, and touch my feet to the floor. And that's where it gets dicey. I'm not able to simply jump out of bed and stand up straight. Not anymore. I am hunched-over like Neanderthal Man, my hands moving reflexively to my back as if they can protect me from another stab of pain."
"From that position, I shuffle to the bathroom. Standing in front of the vanity, I look at my wretched image in the mirror and think, 'YOU are an old lady! How in the world did this happen?' Finally, I'm able to stand up Homo Sapien-style and face the morning. It's not a pretty picture."
It's common knowledge that the golden years aren't all that golden. In fact, Irving Stone wrote over seven hundred pages on the subject in The Agony and the Ecstasy, a compelling portrait of the rapture that younger folks experience when they think about retirement, and the eventual suffering that occurs when the reality of old age slithers up their spine.
Who'd imagine that the golden years would be spent frolicking inside doctor's offices, labs, imaging centers, and hospitals? Forget the idea that when you retire you finally have time to do all the things you put off during your middle years. The reality is that retirement simply gives you even more time to focus on your aches and pains.
I can already hear the snickering and see the sneers on my younger daughter's face as she reads this Blog. She probably feels sorry for me. Or thinks I'm stupid. Or even worse than that . . . lazy!
"Exercise, exercise, exercise. But most of all, Mom, you have to exercise!" Blah, blah, blah.
The way I see it, bending, stretching, reaching, running and flexing is only gonna make the pain of moving my bones worse.
It makes me tired just thinking about everything she says I should do to evade the aches, pains, and maladies of old age.
Yet, I have great admiration for my daughter's firm, muscled upper arms, strong core, powerful legs and straight shoulders. But what I really want to do now is shout, "Stop laughing all you middle-aged kids out there! You think it's not going to happen to you, don't you? Just you wait!"
"Mom, you have a brand new treadmill downstairs. Use it!" There's no stopping her when she gets going. "You have sidewalks in your neighborhood. Walk on them, for God's sake! Mom -- exercise!" She's pretty steamed by now. "If you don't exercise you're gonna die!"
"You're not telling me something I don't know. Of course I'm gonna die. But, at least I won't be all sweaty, stinky, and in even more pain!"
"Mom, do you really need that much butter?" The silliness of the young. Doesn't she know that a well-lubricated machine lasts longer?
"Don't eat that, Mom! Did you read the label? It has preservatives in it -- bad things. They'll kill you!"
"Well, if they preserve the food, maybe they'll preserve me." She isn't laughing.
So. What do I do when I'm confronted with the inevitability that no matter how I move my body, what I feed my body, and what I slather on my body, the golden years are simply an unpredictable roller coaster ride to those pearly gates?
And then my cell phone rings.
"Hi Mom, how are you?
"Hi, darling. I'm fine. Lovely day, isn't it?"
"Sure is. Did you walk today, Mom?"
"Of course I did. In fact, I'm walking right now. It's so beautiful outside. The birds are singing and the sky is a dazzling shade of blue."
I'm trying to speak as if I'm out of breath. My fingers are crossed behind my back. I'm actually sitting on the sofa, sipping a perfectly brewed cup of jasmine tea. I love to walk. Really, I do. I just like to do other things more. I pray I don't go to hell for lying to my well-meaning daughter.
"Dear, do you have any idea what's in store for you when you ripen and fall off the tree?"
She has no clue what I mean. Of course not. Youth doesn't prepare anyone for old age