And Speaking of Exercise

Further thoughts after my pain post.

When we are very young children we are flexible, energetic, tough and resilient. We run, jump, pull up, dive under, crawl around, and skip merrily about in that most frantic of ways that is known only to youngsters and those who watch out for them. We have little fear, none that I can remember personally! The exercise, the movement, the physicality of it all is for the sheer joy of the activity itself.

We can move, therefore we do move. We must move.  We enjoy the movement.

Fast forward to those junior high and high school years, when movement and activity and exercise get more regimented by the year. We join sports teams. We learn what it means to be part of a team, a team that wants not only to participate and play, but that wants to win. We train, we strengthen, we drill. Yes, it’s fun, of course, but it’s also regimented and with one goal in mind. Excelling. We train, we practice, we drill, all in the service of victory.

We are told to move. We will move better than anyone else. We will be celebrated for our movement.

A little further. College, graduate school, professional school. For some of us, the rigors of academics and study and preparation started to severely cut into our physical time, our recreation and competitive sports and training and working out. Yes, I still played quite a bit of tennis and ran and competed in races as I have written about already, but it was becoming that thing that I had to find and make time for, not the thing that came first and gave me the most joy. Having fun was becoming more of an obligation, something to be scheduled. The spontaneity was fading.

We wanted to move. We tried to find the time to move. We knew we should move. It still felt good to move.

Adulthood. We’ve made it. School is done. We have a job, a relationship, maybe a marriage, maybe children, a home, a mortgage, bills to pay. We go to church. We join social groups. We go to ballgames. We shuttle the kids around. We do dishes. We clean house. We work in the yard. We clean the pool. We plant a garden. We are tired and stiff and sore some nights, but we fall into bed and sleep and get up and do it all again the next day, because that is the drill.

We must move. Movement is required to keep the schedule going. We resign ourselves to the need for constant movement.

Now. I am sixty two years old. Firmly middle aged, I do not feel old at all. That being said, I do have days when joints hurt, feet hurt, I strain a muscle I never even knew I had, and I have a hard time bending over to tie my shoes. (Now, take this with a grain of salt, because I was diagnosed with Polymyalgia Rheumatica several years back, and although it is not active, I still think it affects me in little ways from time to time) As we age, we find that the little day to day things that we have always taken for granted are sometimes more of a challenge than they should be. Carrying a load in from the car. Reaching for the dryer sheets in that cabinet up above the washer. Going up and down long, steep flights of stairs. Sitting at a desk for long periods. All of these routine daily actions can sometimes take us by surprise and feel uncomfortable or even hurt! Have you ever reached for something or twisted around suddenly and pulled that tiny muscle under your shoulder blade, that then hurts like the devil for about three days before it settles down? Yep, that’s what I’m talking about.

We still need to move. Some movements are now challenging. If we do not move, our quality of life will begin to suffer.

So, what to do as we age?

Continue to move daily.

Get up, stretch, walk, garden, do the laundry, take the stairs and not the elevator, bend down to tie your shoes. Do not sit more than an hour at a time, if that. Get up, walk up and down the hallway, bend over and touch your toes a few times to loosen up. Use a standing desk. Get outside and walk around the block. Hike.

As long as we are moving, we are living.

Hindsight is Always 20/20

It’s another new year.

January 1, 2020, and I have already been up for a while, read the headlines, had my first coffee of the day, been to the gym and contemplated what to do with the rest of my only day off for the next ten days. Holidays at home are the best. There is work to be done, taking down Christmas lights, organizing thoughts and workflow for the coming year, but there is also the feeling if being at peace, being one with home, one with light and life and relationship and that feeling that this is that one place on earth where I can be myself, for better or worse.

I am munching on pears and cheese lovingly prepared by my wife, who bustles about the kitchen readying the collard greens, black-eyed peas and cornbread for our feast later today, before we watch the Bulldogs play the Bears. The game starts at 8:45 PM which means 9 PM which means way too late for a sixty two year old man who is going to try to sleep at least seven hours per might this year come hell or high water. No, I do not make New Year’s resolutions, but I resolutely recognize that not getting those seven hours of sleep per night is not going to lengthen my life any and therefore doing so is a worthy goal. I will watch the game to the end, unless it is a blowout either way.

The Christmas holiday was a good one, with travel, visiting family and friends and giving and receiving gifts. We got to see the grandkids, growing and learning and getting much too big much too fast. When you are growing older yourself, you do not necessarily feel older until you see your grand children. It is then that you know that your place in the family tree is changing, that you are becoming one of the lower, founding branches and that the little shoots before you are the future. I am becoming not only the older, hopefully wiser present, but I am slipping inexorably into the past. I’m not usually sad about that. It’s just a fact.

The new year for me always means re-evaluation of what works and what does not work. I have a set way of approaching the big things in my life, and for the most part this approach works well for me. Each January, I look at all of it with fresh eyes, and a small dose of skepticism. Did my plans come to fruition last year? if not, why not? Where was the loose connection, the miscommunication, the laxity, the laziness on my part that did not let a thing happen that I wanted to see happen? Where can I fine tune, tweak, let go, add, and change the flow of planning, execution and progression in my personal and professional life that will make 2020 better in some tangible way from 2019?

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about this every year. As  I mentioned in previous posts, I know that time is a finite commodity, and that every year it gets more precious and valuable. Of course, I never know how much if it I actually have left, so it is hard to plan accordingly. I don’t just think about this, truth be told. I obsess about it, as I do about many things. For better or worse, I plan, rejigger, write down,  list, reconfigure, reorder and rethink every part of the plan for life in the coming year. How and when to write? Books by audio or held in hand? Paper or screen reading? More or fewer podcasts? How to make more time for exercise? How to make better and more satisfying connections with spouse, family and friends? Work more, work smarter, or work less overall?

Yes, the new year brings 20/20 hindsight. I know what happened in 2019. I know what worked well and what did not. I revel in my successes and make peace with my failures as best I know how. I vow not to repeat them. I am optimistic about the future. I remember the past, but I do not want to wallow in it or get mired and immobilized.

I do not know the future, but I embrace it proactively as an old friend.

I am older. I am trying to be wiser. I am trying to be kinder, gentler, and more forgiving of others, as well as myself. Will I have succeeded on January 1, 2021?

By then, hindsight will, as always, be 20/20.

Boyhood Memories

“It’s homemade peach ice cream on sunburned lips. That’s what country is.”

Luke Bryan, What Country Is

We get in the old battered blue Ford truck, the one that sits high up off the ground so that Grandpa Dykes can clear the stumps by the pond and vault over the ditches by the plowed peanut fields. He has a nicer truck, the Chevy, cleaner and newer and sleeker and more suited for the one mile ride up the dusty dirt road to church on Sundays. As a little kid, I prefer the Ford. It says field and farm to me in a visceral way that they Chevy just can’t.

We ride, bouncing and jostling and giggling, the short distance up the road, turn right, down the driveway, through the scrubby underbrush and then fifty yards more to the little pond. The cane poles make hollow clunking noises as they bounce against the closed tailgate of the Ford. The big white pickle bucket, now half full of water and minnows, sloshes audibly. Two tackle boxes slide a few feet this way, a few feet back. We get out, gear in hand, and walk the short distance to the little dam, the path on that side of the pond well-worn. Not so the track around the other side, the best place to go for the one monster bass that I just know still circles at depth, avoiding my hook, but also the best place to meet cottonmouths lazing in the sun. We fish and fish for what seems like a summer century but is in reality only a few hours out of my young life. My life that in summer is all sunshine and wiggly worms and slimy catfish and dusty roads. All that it needs to be. Dappled happiness in the shade of those trees that bend toward the water of the pond.

We take our catch-a few pan-sized catfish, a few bright-bellied bream, no bass on this day-and climb back into the truck, smelly and sweaty and grinning and bursting with the heat of a south Georgia summertime. My Grandpa turns the Ford to the right this time, heading towards the airport. Sometimes we see Mr. “Red” Purser roar over us in his crop duster, heading out to apply some winged death to a farmer’s fields to ward off the pests. We turn left on the blacktop, and suddenly the sensations change completely. The old truck picks up speed-ha! if you can call my Grandpa doing forty-nine miles per hour on black top speed!-and the sweet cool wind through our hair and on our sunburned faces is all southern soothing. We ride a couple of miles and slide slowly off the road to the right into the parking lot of a little country store. I know what’s coming. We pile out of the truck and run into the store willy nilly, Grandpa getting out more slowly and trailing behind. He smiles, checks the sky, gets out the bright red Prince Albert can from his front shirt pocket, tamps his pipe, lights it, and eventually follows us into the coolness of the store.

Oh the sugary joy of childhood, the wonder of a candy rack stacked as high as your head, a small brown bag in your hand and the nod from Grandpa that says, “Yes, go ahead and get what you want.” Mary Janes, suckers, real bubble gum with real little comics in the wrappers, sour lemonheads and my favorite-big, bright red fireballs. So hot that they burned your tongue at first, then sweet and good, then bite-sized at the end, when you could crush them with your teeth and start on another. Plunge your hand into the coke box, down into the water that was so cold it would numb your arm up to your elbow if you fished around too long. Pull out the “Pause that Refreshes” in the little bottles that are so hard to find any more, open it on the side of the red ice box, and swig it. I would come out of that store with my little bag of candy feeling as rich as a Rockefeller. Back into the truck for the ride home.

We weren’t through when we got home, oh no. Grandpa would teach us to nail the catfish through the head to the wooden back steps or the side of the house, make the little cuts to get a piece of the skin going, and then grab it with pliers and pull back, harder, harder, until the cat was skinned. The bream were unceremoniously beheaded, gutted, and the bright silvery scales scraped off of them like so many iridescent shingles from a roof. The little buggers would always find their way onto your skin, into your hair and onto your clothes, where they would dry and only come loose later at bath time. Fresh fish from the farm pond were a wonderful dinner, especially when my Grandma cooked them up just right. Clean up, tools away, fishing tackle stowed for the next trip. Sun setting now. A thousand sounds coming from the soybean fields out front and the cows out back and the creek beyond the rise.

Hand churned peach ice cream, Grandma Dykes’s homemade “tea cakes”, fish, watermelon, and swinging on the front porch until dark and beyond, piloting a starship or throttling up a train or galloping with the Pony Express. It was all so innocent. Southern summers. Hot. Full. Rich. The things that a little boy tasted and felt and learned that helped him become a man.

Thank God I’m a country boy.

What memories make you who you are today?

A Time to Live and a Time to Die

Okay, so I was watching the National Geographic documentary Miracle Landing on the Hudson last night. I had just signed up for Disney+, there it was, and you know, I watched it. Probably not the best thing to do as my wife had just taken off, working a shift from Atlanta bound for London, but hey.

You know the story. US Airways Flight 1549 takes off from New York bound for Charlotte, massive bird strike at the 1.5 minute mark demolishes both engines and turns the plane into a glider. There is no hope that the plane will make it to safe harbor of any sort, and all 155 souls on board are coming to grips with a universal truth, one that gets horrifically magnified in a situation such as that.

We are all going to die.

Or, as one of the participants in that aviation miracle put it, “No one gets out of this life alive”.

I had already seen the wonderful, to my mind, movie adaptation of this story starring Tom Hanks as Captain Sully, so I knew what was coming. This was different. The real folks, the real survivors, were interviewed, backed up by actors recreating the horrors of that descent and water landing on the Hudson River. All came to the realization that the plane was really going down, that they were likely going to die this way, and that life was over.

You also know the very happy ending to this story. Everyone on board survived. Every. Single. Person.

I am at the start of what turned out to be my father’s last year of life on earth. He turned sixty two years old on July 30, 1994. I turned sixty two years old on October 24th this year. I cannot help but wonder, what did he think and feel that last ten months that he lived? Did he have any inkling, any tiny inkling at all that his life would be over soon, that he had limited time to live, love, give, experience, serve? Did he barrel ahead, thinking (as I do, or at least my wife does about me), that he would live to be eighty, ninety, ninety-six? (I am not sure why my wife got so fixated on that particular number, but there you have it) Was he feeling ill, having some vague twinges or airplane-crash-like clues that the hemorrhage that would flood his cranium with blood and set his death date at June 7, 1995 was coming?

I will never know. I don’t know that I really want to know. I am curious yet, but only for selfish reasons, obviously, and the knowledge would not bring him back, so there. Put that away.

I do not expect to die in a plane crash. I do not expect to fall off a high peak while rock climbing with my bare hands with no safety gear. I do not expect to die from cancer. I do not expect to be brutally murdered.

I would hope to die a very old man, my wife holding my hand and kissing me softly to ease my fears and whatever pain I might have (Yes, my love, you WILL outlive me, and there is to be no more argument between us about that) I would hope to be aware of my children and many of my grandchildren in the room, saying their last goodbyes to Papa. I would hope to drift off slowly, to “walk silently and peacefully over a cliff” as the wife of my mental health center mentor described his beautiful, peaceful passing at home. I would hope to have the most wondrous of deaths after the most lucky and blessed of lives, to learn of things only imagined and finally, to see Him face to face.

In the meantime, my friends, there is also the other half of that title up there. This is my time to LIVE. I had my eyes examined today. I will have a colonoscopy next week (Yes, I am so excited about that that I could just spit). I am working very hard every week. My wife and I plan to go to Arizona to hike in January. We also plan to journey to Rome and Florence, Italy in April, my first time back in Italy in fifty years. I am looking forward to my five and ten year plans at my job. Retirement is not in my vocabulary yet, if it ever truly will be.

We all MUST die, eventually, that much is clear.

We can all choose to LIVE now, and for as long as God gives us the will and ability and reason to draw breath.

This will be a very strange year for me, as I ponder and wonder and think about what my father felt and did and said and accomplished over the last ten months of his life. It will also be a gift, a wonderful gift, knowing that if this were to be my last year on earth, it would be one of the absolute best I have ever lived.

Grief

I had a brief, quiet, intense conversation with a friend today. She had just lost another friend, a close one, to a sudden and tragic accident.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

“Okay,” she replied, as she turned to go up the hallway. In a second, I knew better. “No, not okay.”

Her usually bright smile was strained, her voice soft, her features drawn.

That brief exchange, the sharing of feelings about trauma to mind, body, and soul, did what those exchanges almost always do to many of us. It triggered, instantly, my feelings and memories of the death of my father twenty four years ago.

As I have written elsewhere recently, I can’t help but wonder how dozens if not hundreds or even thousands of people are dealing with these kinds of reactions and feelings as we have been assaulted on every level by hate, destruction, and death. This on top of expected deaths from old age, deaths from illnesses that are not expected but are accepted, and accidents that leave us jarred, numb and questioning everything we’ve always held dear.

“Your father has collapsed.”

The call came at the worst time possible. We were moving into a new house, we needed to pack, and someone needed to watch the kids.

“I don’t know. Your mother is with him. They’re taking him to the hospital now. I don’t know.”

I am in the car in what feels like minutes. I don’t think I even take a toothbrush, although I really don’t remember.

“Call and let me know as soon as you find out something. We’ll be fine heel. Go.”

“Take all the time you need. We’ll cover things here. Don’t worry. You need to be with your mother. Go.”

Racing down the interstate in slow motion. Time flying by as it stands stock still. Tears and prayers and more prayers and more tears and time flying by with the miles.

“Don’t you die on me. Don’t you die before I get there. Hang on until I get there.”

There are still so many things unsaid. The scenery blurs, clears, blurs, clears, blurs, clears. My eyelids are the windshield wipers for my soul. Is it raining outside? No, it is raining inside. Come in out of the rain. I can’t. I’m getting soaked.

“Don’t you dare die on me.”

The time in the hospital is a blur. The waiting room. The ICU. The doctor. The staff with their kind eyes and kinder manner. My mother is broken, silent in the corner. I have the knowledge but not the will. There are decisions to make.

“We can make him better. We can rebuild him.” A part of my brain laughs hysterically at the thought of the old television reference, so stark against the sunshiny darkness of his bed. Beep, beep, beep. We can never rebuild him. I have seen the scans. They show me because I am a doctor. I see the vast whiteness in his brain. Clean, pure, permanent. I know what this means. I do not want to be a doctor. Oh, God, not now.

I try to support my mother as we walk up the aisle in the church. I see little. I remember little. His mother, my grandmother.

“Oh, parents are not supposed to outlive their children. Oh, ohhhhhh.”

We travel. We talk and eat and visit with folks who have known me since birth.

“Oh, how your children have grown and I remember when your Daddy…”

They put him in the ground. It is hot. Why do people die in the summer, that hysterical part of my brain laughs, way off in the distance. It laughs and laughs so that it will not cry. They put him in the ground. My little sister is there, off to his side. Others are already there waiting for him. Waiting for all of us, I think. It is so hot and the hole in my chest is so huge that I cannot get enough air. I am drowning in the middle Georgia sunshine.

Six days later I am working in an air conditioned emotional bubble. I do what I know how to do the best I know how to do it.

Six months later, I open my closet door and see the stack of papers there on the floor beside the filing cabinet. Odd, I think. That’s not like me. I sit down and go through them, filing and getting things back in order. I feel like I have just awakened from a half year’s dream. No. A nightmare.

Twenty four years later, I think about him every day. Every. Single. Day. It is not unpleasant. It is not painful. The scar over the huge chest wound is thin and tenuous, but it holds.

When change jingles in my pocket, or when someone mispronounces a word the way he did, I smile. When I hold my grandchildren in my arms, the way he held his the day he died, I feel proud. He is here with me. He will always be with me.

As my mother once described it, I am not happy with what happened, but I am content.

This is grief.

This is life.

Memorial Day

One thing about starting a new blog that celebrates getting older is that I, as the guy getting older and writing the blog, am allowed to have a good old fashioned old man rant every once in a while. It’s just the right thing to do. It must be done. This will be a small but important one. Please bear with me.

I love holidays. I really do. Holidays are usually fun, festive and bring people together to eat, drink, be merry and give each other gifts of some sort. Some holidays are religious, some are spooky, some are silly, and let’s face it, some are simply made up by the card companies to sell more greeting cards. That being said, today is Memorial Day in the United States. It is not Veterans Day. It is Memorial Day. Are they different, you ask? Read on.

Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the US that is designed to remember and honor those who have died while in the service of the armed forces of their country. It is observed on the last Monday of May. It is also considered to be the unofficial start of summer. Read more about the sometime controversial history of the start of Memorial Day here.

There are two other holidays that celebrate veterans and their service. Veterans Day celebrates the service of all US veterans. Armed Forces Day honors those who are currently serving in the armed forces of the US.

A couple of facts that you may or may not know about Memorial Day as it is currently observed: in the year 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, asking people to take a moment at 3:00 PM on Memorial Day to stop and reflect; on Memorial Day, the flag of the United States is raised vigorously to the top of the staff, then solemnly lowered to half-staff, where it should remain only until noon, after which it is raised to full-staff once again; parades are held across the land in big cities and small towns on Memorial Day weekend, usually involving marching bands and displays of vehicles used in our various wars; volunteers place thousands of flags on the gravesites of fallen warriors in national cemeteries across the country on this weekend.

Now, my rant.

Memorial Day honors those who have died while serving in the armed services. Thus, in my humble American old man opinion, it is not appropriate to wish anyone a “Happy Memorial Day”. Those who visit the national cemeteries, gravesites of their loved ones, and place flowers through their tears are not celebrating anything happy. They are grieving a painful loss, one that in no small part is why we have the precious freedoms we all enjoy today.

Thus, we do not celebrate Memorial Day, but we observe it, with respect and honor for those who died, and with a profound sense of gratitude for all they did to keep us free.

Veterans Day? Celebrate your heart out. That day, November 11th, will be for all veterans past and present, living and dead. It is also the birthday of my oldest granddaughter, so a doubly celebratory day for us! Thank a veteran for his or her service, give them a hug, salute them if appropriate for you to do so, and let them know that they are loved, cherished and valued by all Americans. (You may do this for my granddaughter as well if you see her. I kid….)

Enjoy the unofficial start of summer today (Lord knows where I live it is plenty hot already), but remember why we observe this solemn holiday in the United States. Take a moment to acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice that some of our men and women in uniform made in order to ensure that we keep and enjoy our many freedoms.