Friday, January 27, 2012

Growing Old Among the Redwoods


My mother at age 90

My godmother and aunt, Marie, died at age 80 of pancreatic cancer.  I’ve been thinking about her a lot since I came down last week with my second attack of pancreatitis (the first was five years ago this March).  While I’m happy to say that my pancreas is cancer–free — only, apparently, “sensitive” and “irritable” like its owner — I’m beginning to wonder if some pancreatic malady eventually will do me in.

In the meantime, I have this more immediate matter to think about:

My Mom is 94.  She comes from a family of long-lived German/Irish peasant stock.  92, 98, 103.5: her family’s life–spans sound more like temperature readings than ages.  When Mom and her 87–year–old cousin and their friends get together, they say of Marie, “Oh Marie — she only lived to 80.”  They don’t even have the decency to add the adverb “relatively” to their comment.

On my father’s side of the family, things aren’t quite as optimistic, although my father’s sole sister lived to 96, and my father’s grandfather, a man of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, fathered his 19th child — with his fourth wife, aged 23 — when he was 91.

All this family history to live up to!!!  Oy veh!!!

Having just turned 65, I look at these family statistics with awe.  It takes effort and courage to get old.  It has taken me some effort and some courage to get to be 65.  To progress farther, it seems to me, is going to take every bit of energy I can muster.

When I was in the hospital — the hospital where my daughter, Sarah, is a nurse on the staff of the CICU — I was harangued daily by the doctors and nurses because of my horrible physical condition and my “lethal” smoking habit.  They were sure, when I was admitted, that I was a very sick old geezer.  I honestly believed they were disappointed to discover that — my sensitive and irritable pancreas aside — I am a fairly healthy old fart.  My doctor, as he gave me discharge instructions, had to say that I recovered from this attack with the speed of a 30–year–old, and that he was amazed at the general health of my “systems.”

Which brings me back to my mother and her family.

I have been obsessed, in the week I’ve been home, with the responsibility of good genes.  I feel as though I owe it to my long-lived forbears to reform my life, lose 100 pounds, train again for the half–marathon (walking only — I believe runners are nuts), and, of course, give up my filthy cigarette habit.  I owe these things to the genes they have given me, and to their collective blessed memory.

But. . .  But. . . But. . .

All that will take work, discipline, pain, suffering, and humiliation!!!  I am retired, for God’s sake!!!  Why can’t my body just do its thing, whatever that may be, and let me the hell alone?

As my mother and her family have shown me, it doesn’t work that way.  My mother hasn’t lived a day since the age of 10 when she wasn’t trying to “lose a few pounds.”  She has always eaten well but small portions.  Her 90–something second husband, now deceased, used to love to eat all kinds of good and rich foods, and he did eat them, although it took him an hour to eat 2 scrambled eggs, 3 strips of bacon, and 2 slices of (whole wheat, of course) toast.  He chewed everything for several minutes, and from time to time would put down his fork or spoon and just sit there.  He was a great guy and I loved him, but his eating habits made me stir–crazy!  All my mother’s 70, 80, and 90–year old friends exercise religiously.  My mother has lunch 3 days a week with “the girls,” aged women whom she met over the past 30 years at the gym now called “Shapes.”  My mother and most of her friends smoked when they were younger — they cam of age in the 30's and 40's.  All of them have long since given up the habit.

In other words, they all work hard to stay fit and healthy.  Regular medical and dental check–ups, constant awareness of opportunities to walk rather than drive, understanding of the latest in nutrition for “seniors” — these are the characteristics that have brought them all into an age that, to me, seems impossible.

The moral of my story: I have work to do!!!  I just hope it doesn’t kill me!

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