A bittersweet day

Almost without fail, I seem to get lots of traffic on days when I’m away from my computer.  Today was one such day.  I got a lovely link from Glenn Reynolds, but I couldn’t capitalize upon it by adding some scintillating posts because I’ve been gone all day.  This inability to post, despite high traffic, wasn’t what made the day bittersweet, though.  What made it bittersweet was that I took my mother to visit old friends whom I haven’t seen in twenty years, despite the fact that they were an integral part of both my childhood and my young adult years.

It was very strange meeting up with them, but in a good way.  We’d all changed a great deal — my Mom’s friends are in their high 80s, while their child is, like me, middle-aged — but they were still, in essential ways, themselves.  The mannerisms, the humor, the warmth — all still there.  Even the half of the couple who was quite diminished by age and illness beamed with happiness when we walked in.

Given how old and frail my mom and her friends are, I had anticipated that our visit would last perhaps half an hour.  Instead, we stayed for two and a half hours, catching up on old times, sharing stories about children and common acquaintances, and generally renewing a very good, very deep friendship.  Even my Mom, who has kept in touch with her friends by phone, got a treat because she hasn’t seen them face-to-face in several years.

It all sounds good, right?  So why was it bittersweet?  It was bittersweet because, owing to a falling out that ran pretty sharp and deep, I lost twenty years of friendship with these people.  Looking back, I can’t quarrel with either their side of the dispute or with mine.  From where we stood, all of us were right.  But we shouldn’t have let it waste twenty years.  And it shouldn’t have taken someone’s serious illness to bring us back together.  That’s bitter.

The sweet part, though, is that I believe this was a solid rapprochement.  We weren’t just faking smiley faces to get us through an uncomfortable, but necessary, rendezvous.  Instead, it felt right — and we already made plans to see each other again.  And that is very sweet indeed.

When I was in elementary school, we sang a song that I bet most of you know.  It seems very apt today:

Make new friends,
But keep the old,
The one is silver,
And the other gold.

Fortunately, this friendship was gold, and even the interruption of hard feelings and many years, couldn’t destroy it.

Falling apart at the seams

Some days, I feel older than I do other days. It’s not the mirror that makes me feel this way, since I mostly avoid mirrors. Instead, it’s the signals my body is sending me. A combination of genetics, childbearing, and martial arts has left me with aches and pains all over. None of them prevent me from doing everything I want to do (especially the martial arts), but all of them make me nervous.

Old man with cane

Both my mom and dad reached old age almost crippled by degenerative bone problems.  Indeed, my dad did that even before old age.  He was almost exactly my age when he had one of the first hip replacement surgeries done in the U.S.  It was a semi-success.  He wasn’t ever confined to a wheelchair, but he was in constant pain for the rest of his life.  Had he lived longer, he would eventually have had to have the hip redone, as well as having his other hip replaced as well.

Old woman in wheelchair

As for my mom, much of her life is defined by her joint and neuro-muscular problems.  She takes medicines to function despite the pain, and then takes more medicines to help her function despite the medicines.

I know that I probably won’t have my parents’ problems.  Unlike them, I’ve never suffered from malnutrition, hard labor, or tropical diseases.  Nevertheless, when my sciatica or my neck problems or my knee problems accelerate, there I am, knocking on the doctor’s door.

physical therapy

As often as not, the doctor can’t do anything for me because there’s not much wrong with me.  The pain is real, so I get physical therapy and anti-inflammatories, but my joints are actually in very good shape.  A little arthritis here, a little spinal compression there, but nothing to write home about.

Interestingly, although there’s little to be done about my chronic pain, I always leave the doctor feeling happier than I was when I went in.  That is, I’m not at all disheartened by the shrug of “We can’t really help you.”  Instead, I’m always relieved that I’m not in as terrible shape as I, the child of my parents, feared I was.  Escape from fear is a tonic in and of itself.

Martial arts

Of course, I’m still at risk because of the martial arts.  So far, I’ve suffered nothing more than some spectacular bruises and ripped off toenails.  Others, though, have sustained all types of sprains and a few breaks.  Interestingly, while there have been, as I said, a few broken bones, most of the injuries at the dojo involve serious soft tissue injury.  One guy ripped all the ligaments in his thumb, requiring meticulous microsurgery from a serious specialist (along these lines).  Another guy separated his pectoral muscle, which had to be stapled back together, although that seemed to be in the purview of a regular orthopedist.

Hand and wrist injury

Still, despite the risks, I don’t stop.  For one thing, I’m having fun and, as extreme skiers and bungee jumpers show, we’re always willing to put ourselves at risk in the name of pleasure.  For another thing, I don’t have any ego tied up in proving myself on the mat.  If something hurts in a way that singles imminent injury, I let my partner know, rather than playing macho and avoiding my body’s message.  Finally, I figure that the certain benefits of bone density and aerobic fitness offset the possibility of a serious injury.

I guess the thing I really have to do is remind myself that, contrary to my neurotic worryings, I am aging gracefully.

Thoughts about elder care

I haven’t written about my mother in a while.  My silence falls into the category of “no news is good news.”  Last year at this time, I seriously doubted whether she’d live into the new year.  This year, although very frail, she’s better than I ever imagined she could be.  Her improved health is a result of three different things:  (1) getting necessary surgery in a timely fashion, something that might not have happened had she been living in a socialized medicine world; (2) getting the right medicines, which happened because one of her doctors had the courage to challenge her addiction to harmful medicines; and (3) moving permanently into a good skilled nursing facility (SNF).

As to that last, both my mother and I were very lucky.  Or maybe it wasn’t luck at all.  My mom had the proper managed care environment available because, six years ago, she recognized that she couldn’t live alone any more.  Although she was still completely mentally competent (as she is today), and was able to drive, a combination of heart and musculo-skeletal problems meant that she just couldn’t manage on her own in a two-story house — and one, moreover, that was in a city notorious for difficult parking.  She shopped around very carefully, and found a retirement home near me (and her grandchildren), which had the added attraction of its own SNF.

From the day she moved into the retirement home, my mom complained.  I’ve blogged about this fact before, because I found her unceasing complaints almost intolerable.  From cliquish residents to unpalatable food to unfeeling administrators, there was always something — some failure, some insult, some battle.  Even though I knew that she was fighting back in the only way she knew how against the diminution of her life, I just kept wanting to shake her and say “Force yourself to be happy, because this is IT.  It’s not going to get any better.”

Last year, things reached their nadir for Mom, physically and emotionally.  And this is where I get to the part about her good choice in retirement homes bringing luck.  Almost exactly a year ago, Mom got moved into the home’s SNF.  It looked as if it was going to be a temporary move but, as I blogged this past spring, it ended up becoming a permanent one.

One of the things that makes this facility special in my mind is how loving the care is.  It’s not perfect care, and there are people who are less good than others, but it constantly surprises me to see how the employees who work with my mom bring compassion, humor, and decency to dealing with the old people in their care.  Some of these people are profoundly damaged by strokes, dementia, and other disease and aging processes, but I’ve never seen the caregivers treat them with anything but kindness.

Sometimes, when the residents are very difficult, the staff’s kindness can be brusque, but the focus is still on treating the residents well.  In this regard, my mom’s SNF is the antithesis of those horror stories you hear about nursing home residents who are abused in facilities that are basically nothing more than Medicare scams.  The difference may be that mom’s nursing home is part of a Presbyterian Homes & Services network.  I’m mad at the Presbyterian church because of its approach towards Israel, but I cannot fault its care of the aged.

Of course, communal living isn’t for everyone.  My Mom has to share a bathroom, which is a severe trial for one as fastidious as she is.  This has been especially true lately, since her former bathroom partner died, and the current one is senile enough to play with her feces.  Aging is cruel.  It’s a times like this, I know my Mom wishes she could have stayed in her house with someone to look after her.  She realizes, though, that with a two-story house, even the best and most loving caregiver would not have been able to get her out and about much.  Her world would have shrunk to a telephone and a television.

As I said, aging can be cruel.  I am therefore very thankful for those people who give so generously of themselves to care for the elderly.  The mere fact that they get paid for their work (and it’s certainly not the kind of pay that will make them rich), doesn’t explain the routine acts of kindness I so routinely witness.

Those chortling over the Santorum yearbook photo should remember that both time and photos can be cruel

Yesterday, my sister emailed me a “cheer up” email that’s making the rounds.  It’s intended for women, who tend to feel more strongly than men do that the mirror is their enemy.  The tag line is “It isn’t just us who suffer changes over the years!”  The rest of the email is photos of former male sex symbols in their prime and now.  Here, see for yourself:

Val Kilmer

Mickey Rourke

Russel Crowe

Brendan Fraser

Alec Baldwin

Pierce Brosnan

Richard Gere

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Roger Moore

Clint Eastwood

Rod Stewart

I wasn’t amused by these photos nor did I have a pleasant frisson of schadenfreude.  Instead, I was saddened.  Age is cruel.  Maybe I’m more aware of that right now than I would have been otherwise because of my mother’s health issues.  A certain part of my memory has her locked into place as a fresh, vital, energetic, extremely pretty woman, about the age I am now.  But the lady I’m dealing with today is so very, very different:  she’s fragile, shrunken, wrinkled, sad, and tired.  She’s still my mother, and I love her, but she also feels like a stranger to me.

Famous people, the ones who had their gorgeous youth played out in the spotlight, have an exceptionally sad fate when they age:  We laugh at them.  People delight in the fact that the same people who used to make them feel inferior are now suffering the same fate as everyone else.  Unless you want to take the punk rocker advice of “die young, stay pretty,” age will lay its hands upon you.

The Santorum yearbook photo demonstrates that aging is a process that places its benefits and burdens on different people at different times.  For those who didn’t peak young, age can be a blessing.  Rick Santorum is a very nice looking man.  He doesn’t make my heart beat faster (that privilege is reserved for Keanu) but I do think that, for a guy in the middle of middle age, he’s got nothing to be embarrassed about.

For the MSM, Santorum’s ordinary good guy looks are a problem.  Fortunately, help is on the way in the form of a yearbook picture that isn’t very flattering, unless you’re a fan of Napoleon Dynamite:

Rick Santorum high school picture

Rick’s features are good, but the disco design shirt, the wide lapels, the huge square glasses, and the bowl haircut (complete with sideburns) are, well, in a word “dorky.”  At The Atlantic, you can feel the thrill of excitement:

A quick office straw poll here at The Atlantic, conducted amidst uproarious laughter, confirms that this is, in fact, the single worst year book photo that most of us have ever seen. An outright disaster. I suppose it’s Santorum’s misfortune to have been in high school during this era. I’m pretty sure that 1976 wasn’t too kind to anyone. But still. Wow–he looks like McLovin in polyester. I have yet to meet the political consultant talented enough to spin this one. My condolences to Santorum. Brave of him to have struggled through this and made something of this life.

The Atlantic includes yearbook pictures of the other Republican candidates at the same link.  Mitt was good-looking then, and he’s good-looking now, but everyone else has changed.  They all look young, they all look very much like products of their own time period, and in all of them, in the smile, the eyes, and the bone-structure, you can see the adults they would become.  Some have improved, some have just aged.  Again, rather than feeling smug when I look at them, I’m simply awed by Time’s power.

The Anchoress, naturally, makes a very good point about these photos.  For most of us, high school was not our peak time:

Let’s face it, yearbook photos suck. They just do. They’re a snapshot of a moment, and usually not a great moment. I think everyone tries to do the best they can.

In the interests of fairness, The Anchoress includes at her post high school (and college) pictures of the past Democrat candidates.  Obama looks like an extra in Kentucky Fried Movie; John Kerry looks as if he was auditioning for the part of Lurch in the Addams Family, except that he overacted and lost the part; and Al Gore looks pompous (so I guess some things never change).  Mostly, they look young, and they look like their peers.  That’s life — and to savage a candidate or even a movie star, because he looked bad then or looks bad now is, as The Anchoress says, “high schoolish.”

As for me, unlike The Anchoress, I will not include a photo of myself here (and hers is much prettier than she would give you to believe).   Aside from my commitment to my anonymity, I am notorious for shying away from cameras.  I don’t take pictures, I don’t like having my picture taken, and, when pictures of me exist, I don’t spread them around.