No doubt everyone grows old in their own way.
But once you actually hit it – that three letter word, “old” – watch out: “An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick …”
So wrote William Butler Yeats, back in the last century, conjuring a mystical journey to the spiritual city of Byzantium in order to escape his entrapment in that word, and in the world that values only youth. Hey Bill, how does it feel to be so old?
I confess that, back in the day, when I was smart and young, I had no actual empathy for the aging generation one notch ahead of me. For instance, I once wrote a column about my Aunt Sophie after she died – it was meant to be about her moxie and perseverance, but I started out by calling her “a wrinkled old lady.” At the time, I thought it was simply an objective description, but it truly annoyed one of her surviving siblings. Today I cringe. I can’t stop groaning and apologizing (to myself, of course).
Hey, where did I put my empathy? Has anyone seen it?
But no, I don’t think of myself as a paltry thing, a tattered whatever on a stick. Even at my worst I don’t go that deep into self-denigration and despair, but I get it. When I feel the certainties of my life tremble … when I start to feel clueless and, yes, stupid, not to mention rickety, I wonder if there’s still space on Yeats’s boat to Byzantium.
But I’m still here, in the so-called real world, struggling to stand up every time I sit down on a couch. My thighs, my knees – I used to take them for granted. Now they can barely do the job, thanks to this mystery menace that has attached itself to me, known as peripheral neuropathy: a growing disconnect (so a doc once described it to me) between my brain and my lower extremities. A friend recently suggested I give it a more poetic term. He suggested “geezergait,” which I’m pondering. Perhaps everyone in Byzantium has geezergait.
Another aspect of “old” for me has been the hide-and-seek game my memory has been playing with me over the last half-dozen years. What was the name of that movie? Who was that guy I worked with back in the ’80s? Who was the civil rights leader they killed in Mississippi?
I started going nuts over all the disappearing – and occasionally reappearing – names, and finally, with the help both of my sense of humor and my love of lists, I started keeping what I call the Geezer Memory List, with varying subtitles such as Lost Bananas and Gone with the Noodles. Every time I lose a name, and then find it (often with the help of the Internet), I plunk it onto the list, which, as of today, is up to 859 items – lots of them repeats.
I guess what I’m saying here is that humor helps. So does turning “old” into a game, and playing that game defiantly, even as the younger generation (occasionally) rolls its eyes.
Another list I started keeping is something called The Strange Bin. This is a list of the ever-increasing number of absurd, strange and sometimes incomprehensible things that happen to me these days, which somehow seem to be related to getting “old,” e.g.: waking up one morning with two bleeding scratches on my right calf, and eventually figuring out that I cut them during the night with my left toenails, which are no longer easily trimmed (see the movie “Goodfellas”); or that time the windshield wipers on my car stopped working and I was told, by the mechanic who dealt with the problem, that there was a rat’s nest in my car engine.
I even turned one Strange Bin occurrence into a poem, called “Old Man on the Phone”:
if they’re too smart
can hide so much.
So I sing only
of bent steel,
a wobbly office chair,
a cup of coffee on the floor
(because there was no room for it
on my cluttered desk)
and a telephone receiver in my hand.
I lean toward the coffee
and the chair careens sideways,
snapping at the base
and dumping me into a world
of crumbs and dust and
at what’s possible.
I grasp the spinning
receiver and blurt to my pal
of 50 years:
“Sorry, you were saying …?”
There’s also wisdom and solemnity in the process of aging, but much of the time I’m not aware of it. And, yes, there is the approaching end moment. I learned of the passing of a long-time friend just as I was starting this column. In an email he had composed before he died, he wrote: “They say that people die, but the love they shared never does. I’ll be happy to live on in your heart, if you’ll keep me there.”
Oh yeah. The collective heart grows large indeed.
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is an award-winning journalist and editor.
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