For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning. - T. S. Eliot As another year draws to an end, and with it the approaching close of my eighth decade on this journey, I know I am among the most fortunate of my fellow-travellers. For sixty years of my passage, I’ve been accompanied by the wonderful young woman I first met when she was but sixteen. She is young no more, of course, but as W. B. Yeats wrote in When You Are Old (almost as if he had her in mind)--- How many loved your moments of glad grace, And loved your beauty with love false or true, But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, And loved the sorrows of your changing face. I still do. Also with me for fifty-plus years of my journey have been the two magnificent daughters who have graced their mother and me with their love, their friendship---and increasingly now, their protection against the failings of age. When they were little, we made a pact to hug them close for as long as we could, then let them go when time dictated. As you might expect, the hugging was easy; the letting-go was hard. But it has been written that when we love someone, we should set them free, and if they come back, then their love is ours forever. That has certainly been the case for us, for which I’m eternally grateful. Our girls are women now, but as I’ve often told them, although they are no longer children, their mother and I will never stop being parents. In due time, those women brought two wonderful men into our lives, and with them produced five wonderful babies of their own---four granddaughters and a grandson for us. It was as if the cycle started up again, but with my wife and I one step removed this time---loving them, wishing the best for them, but somewhat distant from the immediacy of their lives. We strive to remain relevant, of course, and they, in return, take pains to make it so. Kahlil Gibran wrote of that in his meditation, On Children--- You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. And in that last line lies the very essence of the joy and sadness, both, that are implicit in our lifelong journey. Things begin. Things end. Things begin anew. Or so it has always been for me, and will be for some time to come, I fervently hope. But there will eventually come a moment, I know, when no next beginning will follow the final end. Despite my reluctance to face that day, I do not fear it. My approach to its inevitability is summed up in this final stanza from one of my own poems, I Haven’t the Time--- I haven’t the time for anger or rancor, or grumbling, self-pity, or frown. Life’s about living, getting and giving full measure before it winds down. When that day is nigh, as ‘twill be by and by, I hope it will be widely said, That as man and boy, I strove for the joy of living until I was dead. My closest companions along the way have certainly brought that hope closer to reality than it might otherwise have been. To paraphrase the late Queen Elizabeth II, my dear family have been my strength and stay the entire way. As we enter into 2023, I hope for all of you who read these posts that you will feel as blessed as I, and that the ending of this old year, no matter its triumphs or tragedies, will be a new and happy beginning for you. To make an end is to make a beginning. Happy New Year!
Tag Archives: aging
One Leg At a Time
Several of the well-meaning coaches with whom I interacted across several years of playing hockey and baseball as boy and man were fond of telling me and my teammates not to fear our opponents because “they put on their pants one leg at a time, same as we do.”
I’m remembering that now because, alas, it seems I am no longer able to do that simple task while standing up unsupported. And I’m pretty sure aging has something to do with that.
My dressing ritual each morning now begins by sliding one leg after the other into my undershorts while leaning against the bed. If I try to do that without supporting myself, one of two things happens—either I lose my balance before finding the target, or my leg misses the target completely. The first few times I missed, I forgot to let go of the briefs and fell over onto the carpet.
I now sit down to put on my socks—on those few occasions I wear them—and remain sitting to slide my legs, one at a time, into my pants. I’m still able to stand, thank goodness, to hitch them up to my waist and cinch my belt.
It’s also necessary, I’ve discovered, to sit down to put on shoes, and to tie the laces. As a result, I’ve defaulted to wearing sandals whenever I can. But I have to lean one arm on something as I lift each foot to slide into the sandals.
Donning anything I have to pull over my head—such as a T-shirt, a golf shirt, a sweater—used to be relatively simple. I’d slide my head through the neck opening first, then push one arm after the other through the sleeve openings. Whether worn outside the waistband of my pants or tucked in, I was quite adept at completing the sequence.
No longer. Those sleeve openings have for whatever reason become almost impossible to find once my head is through the neck opening. And when I’ve repaired to the mirror to get a better look, I find myself confused between right and left. I’ve resorted now to inserting one arm into a sleeve opening first, followed by the other arm into its opening, which makes it easier for some reason to then pull the article of clothing over my head. Perhaps it’s because, at that critical juncture, I have only one head and one opening left.
On a few cursed occasions, I’ve even discovered I’ve put on the shirt or sweater inside-out or back-to-front, which means…well, you know.
On cool spring or autumn days when warmer clothing is needed, I have a mid-length squall jacket I like to wear, but lately I’ve been encountering a problem. It’s fitted with a two-way zipper, so that when I’m driving (or sitting down anywhere) while wearing it, I can open the zipper from the bottom to accommodate man-spread. That simple feature has been a blessing, but when I’m donning the jacket, it requires that I fit the zipper’s nub into, not one, but two pull-tab receptors at the bottom of the zipper—one that will slide up to zip the jacket, the other that will remain at the bottom to allow opening from that end.
Sounds easy, and it is when those two receptors are perfectly lined up. My problem lately is that I never seem able to get them aligned, which leaves me struggling like a kindergartner to zip up. Why, just the other day, a young hostess at a restaurant asked me if I needed help as I was getting ready to leave. She even referred to me as “Dear”! My bemused wife tells me I should be glad it isn’t another zipper I frequently use that’s causing the problem.
Anyway, I hope you can appreciate the tussles I’ve begun to have when dressing myself. I won’t even try to list the issues at the other end of the day, when I’m struggling sleepily to undress and get into my pyjamas.
It seems apparent to me, however, that these vexing problems have nothing to do with the onset of my senior years—after all, my age is way beyond the onset-stage. The troubles I’m experiencing have everything to so with the persistence of aging, the relentlessness of aging, the unforgiving advance of aging. For as long as I have left, my age is only going to increase, even as the utility of everything else about my mortal self is decreasing.
It’s as if I’m running into myself on a mathematician’s graph—my age-axis on a parabolic rise, my abilities-axis crossing it on a precipitous decline.
It ain’t pretty, and never more so than when I’m trying to get dressed in the morning. All I can do, I suppose, is keep trying to get those pants on, one leg at a time.
One. Leg. At. A. Time.
The Ins and Outs
Some friends were chatting recently in the park about the ins and outs of aging, a not-unusual activity for a group of greying septuagenarians, I suppose. After listening for awhile, I excused myself from that rather depressing conversation, preoccupied by the thought that there seem to be far more ins than outs as one grows older.
It’s as if the in-words are in, and the out-words are out. In roughly alphabetic order, I’ve identified some of those nasty in-things we were talking about.
The first was the inability to do many of the things we used to take for granted—running up the stairs, for example. It’s more likely now that we’ll fall down those stairs.
There is the foreboding spectre of incontinence lurking, an affliction that has already befallen some of my comrades—leaving them, to their chagrin, in-diapers.
Ailments such as that—and others too numerous to count—can be the source of a profound sense of indignity unless one is possessed of a massive sense of self-worth. We are lessened, somehow, when we lose our pride in self. As we read in Ecclesiastes, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!
With some of us (and I do concede for me, too), there can be a greater tendency toward infantile behaviour as we age, particularly when we don’t get our way—in a domestic disagreement, perhaps. Whenever I discover I am moving in that direction, I try to remind myself that my wife is not my mother, and so I should abjure childish behaviour.
That’s not always easy.
In many such situations, I find myself adopting a gratingly ingratiating manner in order to convert, or perhaps cajole, my wife to my way of thinking. Prostrating myself, as it were, to attain my desires.
Hah! Never happens.
So, when it doesn’t, and because I have fewer inhibitions now about my deportment, I occasionally fall into a visible funk, sink into a sulk, and refuse to talk further. I just clam up. But my silence, I’ve found, is always more appreciated by my wife than by me!
However, I am never so injudicious as to remain non-communicative for very long. Dinner-time inevitably rolls around, and my wife—the head-chef to my sous-chef/clean-up guy—is long-past the stage of guessing what I’d like for supper. If I don’t speak up, I could well be fasting ‘til dawn.
That possibility is at-all-costs to be avoided, for during the course of my seventy-plus years, I have learned that failure to eat leads my body to a virtually inoperative state, placing me indeed in-peril.
Despite all these puerile behaviours, I am quite a nice person (or so I’ve been led to believe by folks who are still my friends). Therefore, I try not to present as insufferable to those around me, lest they will no longer be.
Intransigence on my part—on any subject, at any time—is more likely to lead to a parting of the ways with my friends than to any kumbaya coming-together. So, I make every effort to remain amenable and open-minded. It kills me sometimes.
Perhaps the most difficult of the in-words as one ages is the realization that we risk becoming ever-more invisible—overlooked by the younger generations as they rush pell-mell through their daily routines. No one ever wants to think (s)he has become unimportant in the world we still inhabit, but many of us come to fear it is so.
Anyway, the next time I’m chatting with those same greybeards whose conversation prompted these gloomy contemplations, I think I’ll try to present them with some out-words that might lend a more optimistic tone to our stage of life.
Words like—outgoing, outlaughing, outliving, outplaying, outspokenness, outstretching, outperforming, outworking.
And outrageous. We greybeards need to be more outrageous.
We need more outs than ins!
As it has every year since first I made my entrance into the world, another birthday is creeping up on me. In the dim, long-ago past, I suppose that was quite exciting—the anticipation, the suspense, the thrill of growing older.
For some time, however, the prospect of celebrating one more year added to the total has held no joy for me. I’d have been quite happy to stop observing birthdays way before now. On the big day, I don’t feel the slightest bit different than on the previous day, yet I’m supposed to feign happiness at reaching another milestone.
In truth, I feel neither happiness nor sadness about it. Relief, maybe, or gratitude, for still being around. But the actual number is of no concern.
Fortunately, my adult family members know how I feel, so the day is long past when they unveil a surprise party, or present me with airline tickets to a destination of my choosing, or arrange for me to be serenaded by a cadre of bored, atonal servers in a fancy restaurant.
Even my five grandchildren lost interest when they realized there’d be no goodie bags—such as they receive at their friends’ birthday parties—if they came for dinner to honour the completion of another year along my journey.
As I said, I’m not unhappy about any of this, nor am I fearful of growing older. Aging is just the way of things, after all. I prefer to think of life as an uninterrupted voyage from womb to…wherever. The fact that I travel ever more slowly as the years unwind is immaterial; the crossing continues until it doesn’t.
One of my pals is fond of saying, “I plan to live forever. So far, so good!” I love his optimism.
Other friends who might have espoused the same sentiment are gone, however, perhaps surprised by the ending of their travels, perhaps relieved. An analogy I’ve heard expressed is that of riding a train, being joined along the way by fellow-travelers, some of whom will disembark ahead of me along the way, some of whom will still be aboard when, at some point, I shall have to get off.
The best part of getting older is the humour that accompanies it, some of it self-deprecating, some of it kindly (I choose to think) foisted on me by family and friends.
It’s better to be over the hill, Dad, than buried under it!
I agree wholeheartedly. I welcome each day on top of the grass.
Growing up is inevitable. Growing old is optional.
Well, in spirit, anyway.
Studies show that people who keep having birthdays live longer!
I’ll drink to that!
You’re pushing eighty, my friend! Isn’t it getting heavy?
Only if I’m not going downhill!
You could ask for a recount!
Not sure they could count this high!
Not sayin’ you’re old, but if you were milk, I’d smell you before pouring a glass.
Okay then, think of me as a fine wine.
You’re only as old as you remember you are!
That’s the problem!
Getting old is like living in a haunted house…lots of unexplained noises and smells!
Ah, that explains it.
Keep your chins up, old pal!
Ha. Ha. Ha.
Getting older isn’t so bad, Dad. Consider the alternative!
If you haven’t grown up by now, Gramps, you don’t have to!
Amen to that!
Laughter certainly helps to cope with aging, even if only because I can claim my wrinkles are laugh-lines. In fact, one of my sisters-in-law has a plaque on her wall declaring, If you don’t have wrinkles, you haven’t laughed enough!
Anyway, my upcoming birthday will be quietly spent with the special someone who has already shared fifty-six of them with me, dating back to high school, and then we’ll continue on our merry way.
It really does come down to this—even if I didn’t enjoy growing older, I wouldn’t want to stop!
‘Though the Winds Still Blow
Reflections are imperfect, it’s true, but instructive, nonetheless. They allow us to look back over those roads we followed in our youth, with a mind to mapping the ones we have yet to encounter. Here are a few of mine, in haiku form—
from my aging eyes,
the boy I once was looks out—
hardly changed at all
Or so it can seem. I know he’s with me, although I encounter him less frequently now in my daily pursuits. Perhaps he struggles, as do I, against the inexorable weight of the years—
the boy is within
the man, still, but hard to find
as age o’ertakes him
Despite that, however, the persistent, exuberant boy I once was still urges me forward on his youthful quests, unfettered as he is by the physical restraints enshrouding the me who is me now—
the sails of my youth,
once hoist, are often furled now,
‘though the winds still blow
Do I regret that I can no longer join that boy to play as once I did, that I cannot oblige him as he coaxes me onward? Of course! But, do I regret the choices I made, whether wise or foolish, when I was him those many years ago? Well, I have scant time to dwell on that—
regrets? some, maybe—
but I can’t go back to change
the pathways I’ve trod
It’s the mapping of the road ahead that is most important to me now, however short or long it may prove to be, and the welcoming of each new adventure that awaits—
of finishing pales next to
the joy of starting
So, in spite of my inability now to cavort and engage in those many pursuits I all too often took for granted, I still search out that boy each day—hoping he will not tire of my company, welcoming his encouragement, remembering how I loved being him—
now well beyond my
diamond jubilee, the
man is still the boy
Something I Said?
It happens sometimes at a restaurant where three or four couples are dining together. I look up from my soup to find myself alone at our table, the others at the salad bar or in the washroom, perhaps.
Or it could be at a dance, nine or ten of us sharing a table, and I’m suddenly sitting by myself while the others are up dancing, or maybe table-hopping.
The tiresome jokes flow at these moments, naturally. Some wise guy will ask in a loud voice if I’m dining tonight with all my friends. Or some other wit will wonder if I did something to offend everyone in my party.
I laugh, of course, perfunctorily—but somewhat puzzled, too—for it is curious that this crops up with me so frequently. Was it something I said?
It may happen to others, too, I suppose, but hardly ever when I’m around. And although the jokes are stale from repetition, they do take my mind away from a somewhat more sombre realization—that someday, we know not when, one of us in our gang will, indeed, be left alone.
We’re at an age where many of the things we used to take for granted are likely not in the cards for us anymore. How many of us will purchase a new house, for example, with a twenty-year mortgage? Do we really care if the 2040 Olympic Games are held in this city or that? Are hair transplants or facelifts really such an attractive option now? How many more new cars will we buy?
We’re not yet at the stage where we won’t buy green bananas (another old joke) or make plans for some holiday cruise two years from now. But those days are coming.
Aging is a simple, yet so mysterious a process. Simple, because it creeps up on us without any conscious intent on our parts. We start school, we graduate, we marry and become parents. We raise our children, sadly (or not) bid them adieu when they embark upon the world, and exult in the joys of grandparenthood when they begin their own families. Eventually, we retire and reach out for new and exciting pastimes.
Granted, it took years for me to do all this, and the work was palpable while I was doing it. But when it finally hit, my seventy-fifth birthday seemed to have materialized out of nowhere. Getting there was a simple matter of waiting.
But aging is mysterious, too, because so many odd things transpire. For instance, although I feel like the same person I always was, my friends are obviously getting older. Occasionally, when I happen to spy one of them unexpectedly, I see first an old man or woman—only to realize belatedly it’s my friend. I suspect the same thing might be true in reverse when they have a chance encounter with me. We’re all too polite to tell each other that, though.
A lyric from the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, seems to capture it: I don’t remember growing older, when did they?
A few years ago, I underwent some serious surgeries, not necessarily age-related, and spent several months in follow-up visits with the medical people who treated me. When reading my files one day, I was quite surprised to discover a letter from a referring physician to a specialist who had treated me. After the usual introductory paragraph, the letter stated, “This elderly gentleman presents with symptoms congruent with…”
My attention was riveted on those first three words. I thought I had opened someone else’s file! Elderly? Surely not I! And yet, at the tender age of sixty-four, it was true—at least from the perspective of those young professionals.
And so, here we are, I and all my friends, firmly ensconced in our senior years. None of us talks morbidly about the inevitable end of our lives; more likely, we’re comparing our golf scores, sharing the latest stock market activity, or showing off pictures of our grandchildren. We’re a pretty happy lot, all told.
One of us, a retired funeral director, jokes that he used to sign his letters Yours eventually. “They’re gonna get us in the end,” he says with a wink.
I do think about the end-stages of life, however. Like finding oneself left alone at the table in the restaurant, or at the dance. A close friend from boyhood never got to experience that aloneness, dying before his time just over a year ago, surrounded by family and embraced in the thoughts of his many friends.
My parents, on the other hand, lived well into their nineties—not a guarantee of longevity for me, I grant you, but a pretty good genetic gift. At the end of her life, my mother had outlived her husband, all her siblings, and all her friends. Despite the visits from children and grandchildren, I know her final years were painfully lonely.
We cannot know the hour or manner of our own passing, so it’s futile to fret about it. Yet I occasionally ponder whether it would be best to go first, before everyone else has passed, or be the last one standing (or sitting, or lying down…whatever). So much of the joy of life comes from those around us, family and friends, and so much would be missing without them.
I’m unable to decide with any certainty which option I’d prefer. I waver from one to the other, depending on my mood. Vacillation can be a comfort. Truth be told, there is no definitive answer to be found; what will be, will be.
But honestly? I don’t think I want to be the last one at the table, wondering in vain if it was something I said.
From My Aging Eyes
from my aging eyes,
the boy I once was looks out—
hardly changed at all
I was born before D-Day, before V-E Day, before V-J Day. If you don’t recognize those occasions, you’re most likely younger than I. World War II was the single biggest event in the lives of the generation before mine, and the year I entered the world, it was still raging on.
When I was born, I joined almost 2.5 billion other souls on the planet. In North America, the average cost of a house like the one we eventually lived in was $3600, and the average annual wage was only $2000. My future father-in-law, then a callow twenty-one-year-old, earned $800 that year, the first time he filed an income tax return. A new car, for those who could afford one, cost about $900, and the gasoline to fuel it cost fifteen cents per gallon. A bottle of Coca-Cola cost five cents.
Among the people born in the same year as I (and you’ll recognize their names more readily than mine) were Arthur Ashe, Robert de Niro, John Denver, Bobby Fischer, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, John Kerry, Billie Jean King, Peter Marsh, Jim Morrison, and Lech Walesa. Seven of them are no longer with us.
Major world leaders included William Lyon Mackenzie King here in Canada, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Franklin Roosevelt, Jan Christiaan Smuts, and Joseph Stalin—many of whom didn’t like each other at all.
Among the popular films my parents went to see in the year I was born were For Whom the Bell Tolls, Heaven Can Wait, Lassie Come Home, The Titanic, and the winner of the Academy Award, Mrs. Miniver. Frank Sinatra and Glenn Miller were music icons of the day, and Oklahoma opened on Broadway.
Some of the most popular books published that year included A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene, and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo by Ted. A. Lawson. My favourite (which, of course, I was not able to read until six or seven years later) was Thunderhead by Mary O’Hara.
The New York Yankees won the World Series that year, the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, and Count Fleet won the Kentucky Derby, but both the U.S. Open in golf and Wimbledon in tennis were cancelled because of the war.
Invention, spurred on by the wartime effort, saw the development of the aqualung, the Colossus computer used to decode the German Enigma encryption, the ever-popular Slinky toy, and silly putty. The Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, which cost almost two billion dollars, was well underway.
Nachos were invented the year I was born, and remain popular to this day. The ABC radio network began broadcasting that year, launched by the founder of the Life-Savers candy company. The Philip Morris tobacco company unveiled an ad that, for the first time, acknowledged smokers’ cough, although they blamed it on other cigarette brands. The chairman of IBM conceded that “…there is a world market for maybe five computers.” And a Swiss chemist discovered the hallucinogenic properties of LSD—presumably on a trip.
I was born well before the following technological marvels we take for granted today became commonplace: duct tape, television, Tupperware, credit cards, waterproof diapers, transistors, defibrillators, supersonic aircraft, cat litter, the Zamboni, crash-test dummies, aerosol paint, teleprompters, airbags, barcodes, heart-lung machines, WD-40, zipper storage bags, automatic sliding doors, radar guns, computers, hard disk drives, silicon chips, videotape, lasers, spandex, artificial turf, the Pill, LED’s, Buffalo wings, 8-track tapes, CD’s, space travel, personal computers, the internet, and smartphones.
I was not, however, born before the Wright brothers first took flight (as my sons-in-law are wont to claim).
But hey, lest this looking-back convey the impression that I long for the good old days, whatever they were, let me assure you that such is far from the truth. In fact, as I approach my seventy-fifth birthday, I look forward to the changes yet to come—just as I marvelled at those occurring during my life so far—and with the same boyish enthusiasm as ever.
As Dylan so memorably wrote and sang, the times they are a-changin’. But somewhere inside this gnarly old man, there still resides the precocious boy who spawned him, surprised he has not changed.
closing in on my
diamond jubilee, the
man is still the boy
Have a happy birthday, old man!
My Old Man
In all the sixty years I knew him before he died, I never referred to my father as the old man. Despite being acceptable in many households, that phrase always seemed a tad disrespectful to me. And besides, my mother forbade me.
When I spoke directly with him, I called him Dad. When referring to him in conversation, he was my father, or my dad. He was never my old man.
I had no problem with others who used the phrase, though. My friends always seemed to have a loving relationship with their fathers, regardless of how they referred to them.
But there was no denying one fact; during the last decade of his life, which ended in his 92nd year, my dad definitely became an old man—a state of being I am now coming to understand.
We were different, he and I, in so many ways—temperamentally, emotionally, and physically. From my perspective, he seemed a placid soul, tending to take life as it came (although often expressing frustration when it wasn’t to his liking).
I knew he loved me, but he wasn’t one to say, “I love you,”; in fact, when I would say that to him, his usual response was, “Thank you.” Genuinely pleased to be loved, but unsure as to how to express it to his son.
He was a bigger man than I, and stronger, although he was not particularly active in his later years, save for a daily walk. As I grew up in the family home, I never got big enough to wear his clothes or his shoes (although, given our discrepant styles, I probably wouldn’t have, anyway). When I inherited his cherished Omega wristwatch, I had to have three links removed from the bracelet in order to wear it.
As a child, I think I mostly took him for granted. He was always there, he was dependable, he was predictable—a benign, constant presence in our household. Not until after I had become a father myself, dealing with adolescent children, did I begin to think more about our relationship. Not until then did I begin to reflect more on our similarities, rather than our differences.
By then, he was in his seventies, the decade I now inhabit. His hair was thinning and graying, his gait was slowing; and I’d often see him lost in apparent reverie, a thousand-yard stare in his vivid blue eyes. I used to wonder what he was thinking about, but I never asked. I wish now I had.
He’s been gone for fourteen years almost, and I still see him in my mind’s eye—but always as an old man. For images of his younger self, I have to look at family albums, where I am always struck by how youthful he was. I just don’t remember him like that.
The clearest memories I have, however, are counterfeit, in the sense that they are channeled through me. For example, I used to notice how graceless he looked when he bent over to pick his newspaper off the floor—bowed legs canted outward, fanny pointed skyward, gnarled hand struggling to reach low enough.
“Bend your knees!” I’d silently tell him.
At my age now, of course, I realize bending one’s knees can be quite a problem if one expects to rise again. So, I bend from the waist, too—bowed legs canted outward, fanny pointed skyward, gnarled hand struggling to reach the floor. And alas, I see my father in my ungainly pose.
He used to sneeze—not demurely, but prodigiously. A-roo-pha-a-! A-roo-pha-a! we might hear. Or A-ree-cha-a-a! A-ree-cha-a-a! Sometimes A-chintz-ish! A-chintz-ish! There seemed no end to the variety of forms his sneezes could take. But always, they were six times repeated before he seemed able to stop. I think we first learned to count by marking my father’s sneezes.
“C’mon, Dad,” I used to say to myself. “That’s not necessary.”
Now I sneeze, too—not decorously, but colossally. They come upon me at the most inopportune times, and I’m unable to control them. A-roo-pha-a-a! A-ree-cha-a-a! A-chintz-ish! And to my chagrin, I hear my dad all over again.
I had my childhood heroes as a boy, but my father wasn’t one of them. Not then. He was too old, too square, too conservative. And sometimes (to my shame now), too embarrassing. But in adulthood, I came to appreciate that his stolid, almost-Victorian demeanour was comforting, that his sly sense of humour was refreshing, that his love for his family was unending.
As my daughters grew up, they called him Grandpa, or more often Gramps. They didn’t think he was square; they thought he was cool. Now that I’m Gramps to my own grandchildren, basking in their attentions, I’ve come to appreciate how much my kids’ love must have meant to him. Which makes me very happy that I appear to have, at long last, become my dad.
As another Fathers’ Day approaches, I give thanks for one of my heroes, that old man who was my father.
The Better I Was
At threescore-and-ten years of age, plus a few, I am no longer cavorting on ice-rinks and athletic fields-of-play with the same wild abandon that characterized my youth. Not even close.
My ice-hockey skates have lain, undisturbed for lo, these many years, in a box in my storage locker. My inline skates were recently given to my grandson, whose feet, amazingly, have grown to my size. And my baseball gloves (the ‘relic’—floppy, scuffed, and worn; and the ‘newbie’—still-shiny, with a lovely, leathery smell) lie beside each other on a shelf I never look at.
My competitive pursuits these days consist of golf (from the forward tees), tennis (‘doubles’ only), and snooker (on tables with oversized pockets). My comrades and I—no longer so quick, strong, and skilled as once upon a time—are unhurried, more frail, and prone to error now. And that’s on our good days!
I’m sure the same refrain runs through their minds, as through mine: O, how the mighty have fallen!
Not that I was ever that mighty, mind you. The visions of grace and glory ever running through my youthful head were more likely delusions of grandeur. And the triumphs I always looked forward to were more often trials and errors.
It might have been said about me at various times over the years (snidely, of course, by persons with varying degrees of sensitivity) —
- He’s a legend…..in his own mind.
- He’s not as good as he once was; but he might be as good once as he ever was.
- He’s not a has-been; he’s a never-was!
However, the one I deem most accurate, given my propensity for self-aggrandizement, is probably—
- The older he gets, the better he was!
That one comes closest to the truth. When I absolutely ‘crush’ a drive off the tee now (which is rare, and which means about 150 yards), I bemoan the fact that I used to regularly hit it almost twice as far. Not true.
When I double-fault into the net at a crucial point in the match (which is not-so-rare), I protest that I used to reliably smash aces past my opponents. Also not true.
And when the cue ball ricochets off the ball I intended to sink, and itself literally leaps into the pocket (which is often), I smack my forehead and exclaim, “What a fluke! I used to make those shots all the time!” But I didn’t.
It strikes me that the phrase ‘I used to…’ is a prominent part of my conversation these days.
I suppose it’s a form of self-defence to claim a level of excellence that never truly existed, an attempt to ward off the all-too-obvious failings of the flesh brought on by rapidly-advancing years. Even more fragile than my aging body, after all, is my vaunted male ego. Yet sadly, the first gives out before the second.
I recall a computer-translation into Russian of the old saying, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” When a Russian-speaking person was asked to re-translate it to English, it came out as, “The wine is good, but the meat is rotten.”
Exactly how I feel!
Still, I continue to declaim the glories of my yesteryears to all who will listen (the number of whom is fewer and fewer all the time, I am noticing). I am out there whenever I can be—on the golf course, at the tennis court, around the snooker table—rarely winning at the games, but always seeking the former stardom I pretend to remember.
“The important thing is not who wins,” I try to tell myself. “It’s who shows up to play.”
And strangely, the showing up is somehow made easier by a still-burning desire to do better next time, to improve, to regain the degree of mastery (illusory, I know) once taken for granted.
After all, the older I get, the better I…..well, you know.
Weighed and Measured
I was weighed the other day, and measured. And to my great surprise, I was found wanting.
There I stood, like a lamb for the slaughter—clad in undergarments and socks, a paper gown hanging ignominiously from my slumping shoulders—facing the long arm of the weigh scale, its pendulous weights being moved unrelentingly to the right by an unsympathetic nurse.
Another arm, this one perpendicular to the weigh bar, lay atop my head.
“No tiptoes!” the nurse said. “Heels down.”
So I raised my chin as high as I dared, and stretched my torso skyward, straining for every fraction of height. I’m sure I heard my spine decompressing…ouch!
I sucked my stomach in when she wrapped a tape around my waist, and held my breath as the gown crinkled against me. I swear she took her time to read it, waiting to see if I’d have to let go. Mercifully, she released me before I expired.
All my efforts were to no avail, however. The results spoke for themselves. Well, actually, I had to ask for them.
“Okay, step down,” the nurse said. “Sit up on the bed, the doctor will be in shortly.”
“What was I?” I asked, clambering up as directed, pressing the gown between my legs to keep from exposing my nether regions. As if the nurse cared. At my age, I’m not even sure why I did.
“Weight, seventy-nine kilos,” she said, placing the clipboard with my chart on a small table by the bed. “Height, a hundred and seventy-three point seven centimetres. Waist, ninety-one point four centimetres.”
“What’s that in pounds and inches?” I asked to her departing back.
“Don’t know,” she said. “Don’t use those anymore.”
The doctor didn’t know, either, although she was much more forthcoming than the nurse. “You’re a little above weight for your age,” she said, “and a tad too short for your weight. But it’s the BMI we’re concerned with.”
“Body-Mass Index. It’s a measure of body fat, based on weight and height. Ideally, you should fall somewhere between eighteen and twenty-five.” She was busy typing who-knows-what into the computer on the table, its screen angled away from me.
“So what am I?” I asked.
“Let’s see,” she said. “Hmm, slightly overweight. Twenty-six point eight. Nothing to worry about, but it would be good to get it inside the normal range.”
“I’m not fat!” I protested. “I still wear the pants I wore ten years ago. Thirty-four-inch waist.”
She looked at me—not unkindly, but quizzically—perhaps wondering why anyone would still be wearing clothes from a decade ago. “You can’t go by the sizes on your clothing,” she said. “The manufacturers fudge the numbers somewhat, likely to make us all feel better.”
“Really?” I said. That was news to me, discouraging news, until I realized that, no matter the number, my old pants still fit. “Okay, but they’re the same size they were…well, whenever I bought them. I can still get into them.” Even I could hear the tinge of desperation in my voice.
“I’m sure they do,” she said gently. “But perhaps your BMI was high back then, too. Or maybe you were taller.”
“Taller?” I repeated. “You mean I could be shrinking?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” she said, rising from her chair. “Gravity always wins, so most people shrink as they get older.”
“Older?” I repeated.
“Older! Now, lie back on the bed,” she said, “and let’s have a look at you.”
I must have looked alright, even for an old guy, because twenty minutes later she let me go. Dressed again in my familiar, old clothes, the crinkly paper gown gladly discarded. As soon as I got home, I headed for the computer to do the conversions—kilograms to pounds, centimetres to inches. I figured the metric units were bigger than the imperial ones—as in one metre is longer than one yard—so my real numbers would probably be smaller. I was surprised by the results.
“A hundred and seventy-six pounds!” I said to my wife, disbelievingly. “Five feet, eight inches! Thirty-six-inch waist! This is crazy! I’m taller than that! Their scales must be off.”
“As long as you feel good,” my wife said, “don’t worry about it.”
“I’m not worried,” I said, convincing neither of us. “But these numbers can’t be right. She told me I was overweight, for crying out loud. My BMI.”
“What was the number?” My wife obviously knew what BMI meant.
“Umm, twenty-six point eight,” I said, referring to the scribbles I’d made on the back of my appointment card. “I’m going to calculate it with the imperial numbers, see if it’s lower.”
It wasn’t, though. I was overweight metrically and imperially, it seemed.
In the Book of Daniel, chapter 5, there’s a passage depicting a judgement visited upon King Belshazzar, where a spectral hand wrote words of condemnation on a wall. Those words have been translated as: You are weighed in the balance and are found wanting.
That’s exactly how I felt after my visit to the doctor’s office. I’d been weighed and measured, and found wanting. Wanting to be lighter, wanting to be taller, wanting to be thinner!
I tried to imagine how the poor old king must have felt when he saw the handwriting on the wall, but our situations were quite different. It had to have been worse for him. He lost his kingdom, after all, and his life.
All I have to lose is some weight.