Bittersweet Reunion

Have you ever called a friend because you had a feeling that something awful happened to them? I have and usually it’s a false alarm. I hadn’t heard from our old friends, Jim and Sue (not their real names), in a few months. I had an uncomfortable feeling that things were not right with them. When Jim answered the phone, he told me that the day before he had visited the emergency room.

I have written about Jim and Sue before. The last time my husband and I saw them was in Charleston, South Carolina, three years ago. They visit the city each year in April. We have joined them sporadically, touring the stately homes, eating at the best restaurants, and reminiscing about the places we had traveled together.

Sue and I met when we worked together as fairly new nurses at a hospital in Jersey City. We double-dated with our soon-to-be husbands and were bridesmaids at each other’s wedding.

I documented in my post, Bedbugs and Friendships, about the last time we joined Jim and Sue in Charleston. To my dismay, Sue was showing signs of dementia. She had asked about a mutual friend three times during dinner. She didn’t remember that we had just stopped at Magnolias restaurant to make reservations for the next day.

We came home from Charleston: Ernie with bed bug bites (thankfully no actual bed bugs) and with a sadness that we were losing a dear friend. The pandemic prevented any get togethers since then.

Yesterday, over the phone, Jim told me that he had been working on his garden the day before. His feet got tangled in some vines. He fell, tumbling down a hillside. His left shoulder was fractured. No surgery needed, just wear a sling. I brought him up to date with my knee injury. I had overextended my leg while doing lunges. I ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament and tore the medial collateral ligament. I was on the mend now three months later but still used a cane outside my home.

When Jim handed the phone to Sue, I held my breath. Each time we talked on the phone, I feared that I would find her confusion to be worse. Despite a thorough work up and medication, her primary doctor has not reversed the dementia, but thankfully, halted progression. Sue seemed no different than the last time we spoke. 

Acknowledging that our aging bodies are not under our control, Jim and I, the designated trip planners, decided we’ll get together in October.

I anticipate a bittersweet reunion.

Color Apple Tree. Vector Illustration. Nature and Garden

Getting the Message the Second Time Around

Amazing insights to aging by Twyla Tharp.

I read the book before. My husband had been impressed with dancer, choreographer, and author Twyla Tharp’s interview on the car radio and bought her book for me: Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life. It was motivational and I breezed through it. Afterwards the book sat on our coffee table. I picked it up a few days ago and randomly opened to page 123 where Twyla talks of breaking a bone while she is teaching a group of children to dance. As she demonstrates a position, her foot collapses and she cracks the metatarsal bone in her toe.

Here’s what she says:

            “This was a fairly common, unremarkable incident really, except I was sixty-nine years old and this was the first major injury of my career. Until that moment, I’ve never done bodily harm to myself. Never twisted an ankle or torn a muscle or broken a bone. An impressive winning streak, only some of which I attribute to luck.

            Perhaps something like this has happened to you. Your moment probably looked different: your reached for a book on a high shelf and felt a sharp twinge in your back. You wrestled with a tightly screwed jar and, in defeat, asked stronger hands to open it. You hesitated before jumping down from a high stool at a restaurant, worried about the shock to your knees, then chose a safer route back to earth. If so, you appreciate the significance of that first moment when your body breaks its contract with you. You can no longer entertain the illusion that you are among the immortals, those who throw themselves delightedly after perfection with childlike intensity because they can. You begin to morph into a mere mortal.

            You may not have even realized you were under the illusion of being an immortal, but while mortality can appear at thirty, forty, or fifty, be assured it happens to us all sooner or later. It is the moment when you start to doubt whether you have control over your body after all. You resign yourself to aging.” (Emphasis mine)

Tharp, Twyla. Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2019.

            Now it may sound ridiculous, that at 80 I hadn’t resigned myself to aging. When I sustained a knee injury soon after my 80th birthday, I did what I am best at: denial. The first two weeks afterward, I somehow “forgot” the physician assistant at the urgent care told me to always wear the leg brace. I wasn’t going to let this injury limit me, so I walked around the house without it. Only when I went outside did I put it the brace on.

            When I finally saw the orthopedic surgeon, he pointed out the injury on the MRI: a torn anterior cruciate ligament and fully severed medial collateral ligament. Looking at my knee x-ray, he discussed the arthritic changes and osteopenic bones in my knee. He reminded me that I needed to wear the brace constantly except when sleeping. Leaving the office, my husband said, “That was good news, you’ll get better in six to eight weeks.” I didn’t hear that. I was too busy focusing on the degenerative changes in my leg. I had been so proud to race up a flight of stairs, avoid elevators when possible and walk all day while sightseeing in New York City. I was in denial that my body was aging.

I asked at the end of one of my recent posts: what will I learn from this injury? I didn’t realize what a profound question that was until I opened Twyla Tharp’s book for the second time. There on her pages were examples of other aging persons who use their years of experience to forge new paths toward quality of life. I, on the other hand, was hoping to keep the status quo.

 Twyla’s book is so different from the usual books and articles I read on “successful” aging that focus on scientific studies. Twyla mixes common sense, creative motivation, and lots of interesting anecdotal stories about famous folks, mostly in the arts, such as writers, dancers, painters, music composers, singers, musicians; some still alive, some long dead but all demonstrating a lesson that moves us to be better as we age. (I must confess my eyes glazed over the description of how the professional boxer and heavy weight champion, George Foreman, affected a comeback at 45 years old.)

What Twyla does best is to show how to circumvent the limitations of aging by abandoning old stereotypes. She says that “. . . chasing youth is a losing proposition.”  Forget the past, reinvent yourself. Keep reaching. Keep moving.

What did I learn? I learned that successful aging is not trying to keep constant the same level of ability. In using the wisdom we older folks have accrued, we can refine the path we take as we go forward on our aging journey. This journey is ours to define and enjoy.  

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