Community Perspective: Being Old

A contributed perspectives piece by Joe Laughland

Looking in the mirror, he should have been a young, slim, handsome man. Optimistic about the future and looking forward to another year. Wanting to do new things and hanging out with his buddies. Not a gray-haired old man with a double chin and a slight beer gut. Wrinkled and blemished face. Crinkly, wrinkly, liver-spotted hands. Nose hairs flapping in the wind. A weak and sandpaper voice. His buddies having passed on. When did this happen?

Picking something off the floor, his muscles scream, “don’t bend down, you’ll hurt yourself.” Scooting to the couch’s edge and pushing hands down into the cushion . . . to stand up. Leans against the bed when putting on or taking off clothes in case he loses his balance, he’ll fall on the bed. He holds stair railings when walking up or down stairs. Inside his brain resides a young person trying to understand why his body no longer responds as in younger years. And worse, knowing that he will never return to that youthfulness. When did this happen?

Being old, he meets lots of medical people. The dentist treats his old teeth with crowns, root canals, and dental implants. The doctor exams different body orifices looking for problems. A nurse measures his blood pressure, draws blood, and gives him shots. The pharmacist fills prescriptions for his health and inflicts pain to his pocket book. Being old changes everything.

Guess what amazes him? He never saw it coming. Simply woke up one day and realized that he had finally arrived as an old person. And surprisingly, accepting this status without much complaint. His intellect told him that he had arrived and could not go back.

Some people hope to die in their sleep. His Dad died sleeping with very little discomfort from the ruptured aneurysm. But he didn’t get a chance to say goodbye or “Dad, I love you.” His Mom took years to die from dementia. Moments after telling her that he loved her, the words faded from her memory. He’s hoping for a nice painless disease that

allows him to say goodbye to everyone, and maybe even have a good old Irish wake . . . before he dies.

As his life drifts into that setting sun, he has fun being old. Flatulate without shame or blush. Ignore comments about mismatched shirts and trousers. Exploit his poor hearing to ignore boring chatter. He just says, “What was that you said?” Or better than that, he just dozes off while people talk to him. At that point, they stop talking, and that’s okay.

He has reached the end of telling stories. That is, he’s begun to repeat myself. His wife reminds him that she’s in the story about Bar Harbor and doesn’t need to hear it again. His daughter says something like, “I remember that story about you driving seventeen hours through a snow storm to see Mom.” And before he gets two sentences into the story about his college blues band, the grandkids say, “Grandpa, you’ve already told us that story.”

He now understands why old people quietly sit in rocking chairs, silently looking off into space, not wanting to talk. They’ve told all their stories to everyone, more than once, and have no more desire to be interrupted with the words, “we’ve heard this story before.”

So now, he sits in his chair with a blank stare, lips moving slightly, telling that story about sailing up to Port Townsend in a hurricane once again . . . but this time . . . only to himself.

Being old means that no one expects him to do anything anymore. No more power washing the deck, shoveling snow, or taking garbage to the curb. No more cleaning gutters or painting ceilings. No more rotating tires. Go to bed when he feels tired, sleep all morning if he wants. Enjoy chocolate cakes and cookies without worrying that it might kill him in forty years. If he doesn’t want to do something, he just reminds them that, well . . . he’s old. And with his life’s story behind him, he’s just here . . . finishing up . . . living the last chapter to his story.

Joe Laughland, a retired management analyst, moved to Harrisonburg in 2010.  He is a member of JMU’s Lifelong Learning Institute’s Writers Group.

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