It’s easier than you think, getting old. You just slow down, become more careful, say No more often. It’s a habit that fits loose but binds tight, made of the lightest and softest fabrics that somehow still pull heavy on the shoulders. And once you’ve put it on, you’re not sure if it’s safe to take it off again.
July 10, the day after my hernia operation, I wasn’t so resigned. Spurning the pain meds, I took the family to our community fair, hobnobbing with the politicians, laughing with the farmers and eating the worst pancake breakfast in the history of church fundraisers. But half an hour into it I was already beyond hurting and seeing white, needing to sit down before being driven home. Slept the afternoon away, and popped some Advil to get through the night.
For the first two weeks of mandatory docility, I followed the rule of not lifting anything more than 5 pounds – a small bag of sugar. It was hard, but in a way fun, learning to ask others to cart the chicken feed or pour me water from our big jug. The Happy Invalid, taking daily naps and enjoying a respite from being the man who always pushes the limits.
The next two weeks I followed doctor’s orders and very gradually increased activity and the weight of lifting. VERY gradually, almost shockingly gradually. Still no running, still no picking up my children, and still long daily naps. Was I erring on the side of caution to not reinjure it, or respecting that my 43-year-old body really does need longer to recover than when I had the same operation at 24, or just getting lazy?
By August I was officially out of the danger zone, but didn’t suddenly become the invincible Rick Who Believes He’s Still 25. When the boys asked when I could pick them up again, I told them maybe when school started. I still walked slowly through the property, carried half-loads, and took my beloved naps. Told myself I was just being extra-careful, but somewhere inside I started to worry that this was it. This was the new me, finally admitting and acting my age.
So this is what it’s like to be old. Before jumping into an activity having to think if I’ll have the energy to complete it. Saying “no” to fun and adventure if it might be “too much.” Letting younger friends and Woofers carry the heavy stuff. Watching the children run and smiling at their youthful energy. Sitting on the couch for a snuggle instead of scooping the boys up for a big spin-around hug. Hearing my own tired voice say, “No, you kids go for a swim, I’m comfortable here on the blanket.”
The motor runs fine; it’s the starter engine that’s wonky. This premature old age was no longer by doctor’s orders, no longer because I could only drive slow or had run out of gas; it was a choice not to drive. It was easier to not turn the key, not get the engine fired up.
This deliberate decrepitness cost our family a much-anticipated backcountry hiking trip to Cathedral Lakes, settling for a forestry-road drive-in trip that fortunately was also beautiful. It cost me a summer of active gardening, relying on Sarah and woofers to produce our year’s bounty. It cost my boys two months of exuberant interaction with their papa as they learned too well to be careful and gentle with their fragile Old Man. It cost me a full season of being fully Me.
The road back to Me had two milestones. It started on our last morning of camping, in the last 2 minutes when Zekiah fell just before our final goodbye with our friends. He was hurt, sad, and not about to go do our traditional rousing rendition of Brown Squirrel (this year augmented by a spastic Wild Things wild rumpus). “My boy needs me, all of me, right now,” I thought, and I picked him up and carried him over, hugging him close. His teary eyes grew wide with wonder and delight as he whispered, almost in awe, “Papa, you’re carrying me!” I didn’t tell him that the doctor would have let me pick him up two weeks ago. We both needed this moment right then. His Papa was there, all there.
The other marker was the next day when Sarah took me to Bikram (hot) yoga for the first time in 4 years. My first yoga at all since spring – somehow I’d convinced myself that my sore body couldn’t even handle gentle stretches, that atrophy and stiffness were also part of the new Old me.
Just entering the 104 degree room triggered an old pattern of striving and pushing boundaries; set an intention of health and strength. As of the first breathing exercise I was out of the rocking chair, back to being back. I pushed too hard of course and hurt my lower back, but the rest of the week still went every day and did the poses I could to bring energy and power back to my body.
I’ve lost significant core strength for the first time in my life, but it’s already coming back, and for the first time ever I’m aware of it. I’ve always just had strength and energy, but now as I work to bring it back I’m appreciative in a new way. It doesn’t just exist, it has to be summoned and nurtured and honoured.
I’m not 25 anymore, and that’s OK. I don’t have to pretend that I could still make Wimbledon if I set my mind to it – I am older than Jimmy Connors when he made his 39-year-old amazing Aging Athlete run at the US Open in 1991. But I don’t have to focus on limitations, don’t have to dwell on what I can’t do or lose momentum worrying about losing momentum. I can decide to be healthy, to be strong, to have the energy to create energy. I spent two months respecting my limitations; now I’m back to respecting my power.
Write to Renew - One of our previous graduates, the talented Jay Nahani, is leading us in a Write to Renew workshop June 14th. For writers and non-writers alike, this one-d...