I tossed my walker over the cliff the other day (figuratively); I was raising my angry fist at my advancing years and infirmities, much like Dylan Thomas wrote in his famous poem.
Acceptance of this has been a battle as I deal with body part replacements, body parts deteriorating and having to be rebuilt with other body parts, and a host of other ailments.
My couch has become my new best friend. And as I watch my bird feeder outside my window, I meditate on accepting this, because, in my days under the sun, I have hiked high elevation mountains, swam with sharks and repelled down cliffs.
The aging of my body and mind is a given, but does it mean I have to be resigned to it? Aging is inevitable and a privilege, but to remain complicit in the face of aging is starting to wear on me. While there may be times to be on the couch and take care of my body, there also comes a time that I need to push through it.
So, I got up off the couch the other day despite painful throbbing neuralgia and arthritis. In a cool rain, with a bottle of water and fierce determination, I started hiking, uphill, climbing up boulders until I was as high as the buzzards. I felt good; illness was suddenly not in the driver seat of my life. It had moved to the backseat.
A friend was convinced her COPD was getting worse – possibly her heart too. After the death of her dog, she had stopped walking, volunteering, going to the gym, and gardening made her tired. Entire weekends were spent dozing.
“You’re depressed.” I told her.
She made a face. “Nonsense; I’m 74 and have COPD. The doctors have me on a heart monitor for a month!”
The eventual diagnosis? She was just fine and out of shape. The doctors told her to start moving. My sister, 78 and spending the last two years in chemotherapy, goes shopping many days a week, has a weekly hair, nail and facial appointment, and refuses to give up and be sick.
“I simply won’t think about it,” is her motto. A colleague, Dr. P, suffering from dementia, has stepped down as VP at a college, but he is at the college frequently, tutoring students or taking classes, each semester learning something new, and he does it with unflinching grace and joy.
I no longer have the appetite to hike to Everest Base camp (which was on my bucket list along with Mt. Kilimanjaro), or go on vacations that I used to need to train for with weighted belts, but on the days that I am well, and even on the days I’m not feeling all too well, I’m going to push forward because, for me, it feels cowardly to do otherwise.
Instead of tears coming to my eyes because the arthritis in my hands makes it hard to nimbly maneuver my fingers, I now get ticked off. A little bit of rage goes a long way, and it prevents me from wallowing in the despair of my body betraying me.
I have more years behind me instead of ahead of me. WOW. How do I live my life knowing this? How do I live my life when a new ailment seems to materialize every week? How do I live my life when my heart wants to do a triathlon, but my bilateral hip replacements won’t let me?
Throwing my leg over my 23-year-old Thoroughbred the other day, I decided both he and I were not through quite yet. He agreed. Grabbing his mane, he leapt into a gallop, and we went flying like he was 8 years old and I was 27. Sparks literally flew off his horse shoes as they crossed over the rocks. We jumped a creek, a log, branches smacked me in the face, and we both felt more alive than we had in years. It was exhilarating.
Afterwards, walking like John Wayne into my house, I took an anti-inflammatory, ran a warm bath with Epsom salts; not something I needed to do when I was 27. By 9 p.m. my crunched disks in my neck were screaming, so I took more meds and added my neck brace. I had ice or hot packs on different areas of my body. But that’s o.k., I think.
Perhaps it does not need to be all or nothing. Maybe there is a middle range, somewhere that isn’t on the couch but not hiking the Appalachian Trail – though an 83-year-old has completed it. While I don’t need to gallop every day, I do need to stay engaged, moving my body, working my mind, meeting people because it’s way too easy for me to let my aging pained body be in the driver seat.
Dylan Thomas wrote, “old age should burn and rave at close of day.” Yet, he only lived till 39. Hmmmmm. But there is some truth in his poem because the theme is about not being complacent, having regrets or resignation to the aging process, which often isn’t pretty. Sometimes, to march through aging, we need to be a bit fierce.
How are you handling the aging process with grace? Have you had to modify pastimes you have enjoyed? Can you strike a balance of rest and engagement?