Reflections on watching your Grandpa age (and watching myself do it, too)

Yes, grandpa. It’s sure been quiet in this house without him. It’s quiet with him here, too, but it’s different. I miss him. I miss worrying if I’m making too much noise when I come through his room from the garage, or if I’ve got lights on in the kitchen after 6 pm. (I wish he still went to bed at 7: that was livin’ large <grin>.)

But, as you know by now, his “procedures” all went well. First, the angiogram in which they checked out his arteries and installed a medicated stent to keep ‘em open. Next day, a pacemaker to keep his heart running at the right speed. It’s pretty amazing they can do all that for a 92-year-old. Mom calls him “bionic grandpa.”

Almost as amazing as healthcare for Americans lucky enough to have great insurance: Bob’s absolute equanimity in facing all those procedures. The doctors were going to fix him up; what else could possibly happen? He’s always felt that way. Doctors are God. (The rest of us, maybe not so much.)

And, lo and behold, once again, he was right. Mom says he already has a lot more energy.

He’s in the rehab center now, for physical therapy and I don’t know what else. I told mom to tell them, Whatever kind of therapy you got, we’ll take. Because, per your last point (“I don’t really know what he wants, and I don’t think he’s capable of knowing what he wants,”) I’ve never, ever doubted that Bob wants to stay alive.

There have been times he was so contagiously depressed that I couldn’t figure out why he wanted to stay alive. But he always has.

Dementia or not, Bob is determined to take the right pills every day, and never ever eat anything unhealthy. He actually reads nutrition labels to identify added sugar, which is more than I can say for most folks 25, 50, 75 years younger than him. Perhaps things will change if he starts to really suffer. But this is not someone asking why God hasn’t taken him yet.

Speaking of God, Bob thinks there’s something inexplicable and unfair that a man like him, who never drank or smoked, should ever be sick at all. He has a bit of Job-like confusion over why anything bad would ever happen to someone as well behaved as he’s been.

I wrote a bit about Bob back in August when we were talking about what we wanted. One big item on my list: I said I wanted to grow older gracefully.

When I think of old age, of course I think of the old people I’ve known and seen, especially the ones I’ve seen up close, like Bob and Grandma Lu and my Dad. But when I try to make sense of the old people I’ve known, I keep coming back to poetry. All the paradigms of aging I know are best thought of in verse.

I do feel sorry for those who don’t have at least a little verse and literature to draw on when they contemplate life. It’s not as if you have to go deep into hidden corners of the canon: it’s all right there in the poems you’d be most likely to come across.

There’s the helpless old man, withering to blow away in a stiff November breeze, “heart fastened to a dying animal,” surrounded by youth preoccupied with their own youth, in Yeats:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick.

That’s from the second verse of Sailing to Byzantium, which begins: That is no country for old men. I should have realized that; maybe you already did.

Then, there are the men who Dylan Thomas importunes to fight until the bitter end:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And, of course, there’s Ulysses in the Tennyson poem you and I and M admire so much:

…Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off…

…Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I used to like Dylan Thomas best. Now, moving towards 59, I like Tennyson best. But I should be able to learn from them all, just as I should learn from all the real old men and women I know. I certainly learn a lot from Bob, and it doesn’t matter if he’s ever imagined he was teaching me anything, or cared if he did.

We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven… I can already relate to that. Ulysses sounds so ancient. But if this is the last voyage he embarks upon soon after returning home to Penelope, he can’t be much more than 50, can he? Maybe even younger. Interesting…

That’s what I worry about: just getting tired. I finished 20th out of 557 New Jersey cyclists signed up for the National Bike Challenge; I did my 50 miles in Ramapo Rally. As you wrote, I am in better shape than a lot of guys my age. I’m certainly not carrying the belly some of ‘em are. My checkup went perfectly fine. Even my knees aren’t hurting quite as much lately. And yet, I get up in the morning, and I’m tired.

I run table tennis in town, and I play hard, but balls get past me that didn’t last year. I start big new work projects and it’s tougher to get rolling. I’m carrying 12 massive online courses (and I’m really trying to take all the exams and write all the papers) but even that’s feeling a little tougher lately.

I’m seriously considering starting graduate work through Harvard Extension School next fall… much of which can be done online, but I’d probably have to commute to Boston one day a week for the first semester. It feels like if I’m gonna ever do that, I better start soon.

Lately, I’m more aware of the entropy of the universe starting to press on me a bit, sort of like the “ether” 19th century physicists imagined the Earth was passing through. Like walking slightly uphill.

And yet

This week’s New York Times Magazine was all about health; or more specifically, about the quest of folks my age and older to “stay young.” There’s a quite remarkable article about Ellen Langer’s social psychology experiments, which offer tantalizing (if far from conclusive) evidence that much of age really is in your mind, after all.

Langer invited 8 guys in their mid-70s to a retreat; she picked guys in fairly poor health. Then, she surrounded them with pictures of themselves 20 years ago. The TVs were jiggered to only show 20-year-old entertainment and news programs. They were given 20-year-old magazines to read. And after less than a week, they’d improved substantially on a wide variety of physical measures. Even their eyesight was better.

Reading about Langer’s work, I wonder if I shouldn’t work on increasing my suggestibility. I always say “58 is the new 58,” and I’m always trying to ferret out medical interventions that are “just placebos,” fooling people into thinking they’re actually biologically useful. There’s nothing I hate more than thinking I’m fooling myself about reality or pretending to still be young when I’m so obviously not (like all those other people do <grin>).

Could it be, after all this time, I need a little more Fox Mulder? That I just need to believe in those multi-vitamins my doctor gave me?

i want to believe

For someone like “rational” me, that’d be one big kick in the pants. It’d be as if the world was going out of its way to shake up my most deeply held values and understandings.

But then (if you’re paying attention) the world does that.

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