Thursday, June 02, 2005

Little Catastrophes

After coming home from the zendo tonight (fourth night in a row), I had to roll the garbage dumpster and the recyclables bin up the steep hill of my driveway. While I was pushing it up in front of me, I got to wondering how long I would be able to do this before I got too old to have the energy or muscles to push it anymore.

It's not particularly hard to do, but it does require a little leg strength and sure-footedness. But can I still do it when I'm 60? 70? 80?

On the one hand, if I keep pushing it every week as part of my householder rituals, I should at least keep those muscles in shape in order to keep doing it indefinitely. But that's not the way life goes. Sooner or later, some minor mishap will occur and knock me off the rhythm. Perhaps I'll break a leg and not be able to even walk, much less roll a dumpster uphill, and when I finally do recover, the leg muscles will have atrophied to the point where I cannot push it like I used to. Maybe I'll break a hip. Maybe I'll have a major illness or a stroke or a heart attack that will weaken me and I'll no longer be able to bring the trash can back up.

What will I do then? Pay some neighborhood kid to roll it up for me? Expect the garbagemen to come up the hill and get my trash? Or just let the garbage pile up in one big, diseased, vermin-infested heap until the neighbors complain and Health Services or some such bureaucracy intervenes?

See, I don't think we age as a slow and steady decline, but instead cruise along on a more-or-less level plateau until some little catastrophe occurs, and then drop down a level or two in a sort of punctuated rhythm. The older we get, the harder it is to recover from these events.

Back last April, when I was battling the flu, I developed a pain in my right shoulder and arm. I could barely lift my right arm to keyboard level, making it very difficult and painful to compose email, surf, or blog. I got over the flu, eventually, but some of the pain persisted in my arm. To this day, I cannot lift my right arm as high as I can my left, and the one arm is now definitely weaker than the other. I wonder if it will ever be the same again or if it's dropped down one level, never to fully recover again. Fortunately, though, I'm left handed.

Last week, I got a letter from my Dad telling me that on May 12th, he suffered a TIA. I didn't know what a "TIA" was - I always thought it stood for "thanks in advance," but apparently it's a "transient ischemic attack," sometimes called a mini-stroke. It starts just like a regular stroke but then resolves leaving no noticeable symptoms or deficits, and occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is briefly interrupted.

When he got home from the hospital, he writes, "A heaviness came over me. I cannot do the same things as before. I cannot run into the ocean waves with a surf board over my head looking to grab the biggest wave; ride a bicycle into a tree; wear Billy Martin's baseball card on my NY baseball cap as I coached Little League plus Babe Ruth baseball for so many years; jump off a road bridge into the water below for a penny bet; slide down a slippery rock slide into a pool of water off the Kancamagus highway; dance to jazz such as 'Sing, Sing, Sing;' run for political office; have my own coffee radio station; write sport stories; be the host to my television golf show or ski down the slopes of Sugarloaf mountain. My body caught up with my age. Did anyone tell?"

I know what you mean, old man. One day, you're the stud retiree, the next, you're TIA. I'm not at either station yet, but I can see the little catastrophes out there waiting to pounce on me.

Next month, I have to get my wisdom teeth removed. The surgeon tells me she wishes that I was 25 or even 30 years younger for this procedure, that I won't bounce back as quickly as I would have then, if at all, and at my age, the procedure runs the risk of nerve damage, loss of the sense of taste, and even facial paralysis. Not to get them removed will almost assuredly lead to abscesses, disease and other ailments. So either way, there's a little catastrophe out there waiting to see how well I recover.

I don't mean to sound gloomy about all of this - in fact, writing this is making me want to ride down the driveway inside of the recyclables bin. Want to bet a penny that I can do it?

"I don't know about you, but I could go for a plate of chicken catastrophe and eggs overwhelming, all washed down with a tall, cool Janitor in a Drum." - half-remembered and probably poorly transcribed quote I once heard from musician Tom Waits

1 comment:

GreenSmile said...

Sigh. It is so. I think of the inexorable progress of senescence as a punctuated decline. The odd thing is the way will and physical capacity interact. It is harder to do something, most things, today than it was a few years ago. It becomes MORE important for me to resist inertia, MORE important for me to do those sit-ups I never used to do but am not yet literally incabable of doing. I should be shocked that I do know and still won't do what I know I should. This is the senescence I fear. It wraps and it warps thought: I feel tired. I tell myself I will resume effort tomorrow.

Nonsense! Today happens to be damn cold for a day in June but I have talked myself into riding my bike to work.