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In old age, we realize we aren't immortal

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Until last year I felt fine. I marveled that I felt so good even though I was in old age. I had passed through the 70s without serious medical problems.

Then last year, illness suddenly arrived. Ailments struck, one after another _ bing, bing, bing. A turning point had come. It seemed that when I became 80, I had crossed a line into new territory where sickness prevailed. I realized that I wasn't immortal after all and would not live forever.

Sickness attacked me from many sides. First, there was heart trouble. Arteries were found to be clogged and I had to have angioplasty to clear away the blocks. Some small growths on the skin were found to be malignant and were removed. Then along came sciatica with its pains. I hurt whether I sat or stood or walked or lay. I couldn't find any position or act that would bring relief. I thought, am I going to be stuck with this for the rest of my life? I recovered after a few months of it.

One day I slipped and fell. Although I was on one knee I found it hard to rise. I thought, this can't be me, that I should not be able to do a simple, little physical act.

Me, the onetime star athlete of Humboldt Street. At times, I was filled with fatigue and had to rest even when I had not been active. Again I felt, this isn't me, one who always had been active and energetic.

At the beginning of life, 80 years later seems far away. But the years pass, one by one, and 80 years of age finally arrives. When one looks back on time, it seems to have flown and that life has been short.

Everyone knows he is going to die some day. Some people don't want to use the word death when referring to it. They prefer to say that someone has passed away, that one has departed, that one is no longer with us.

Youth is more interested in what is present, the immediacy of life it is living, than in the distant future. But when the end comes near, there is a greater awareness of death. It becomes like a shadow that is always close behind one and looking over the shoulder.

Life comes to us for a while and then goes away. What is the point of it? What does the huge universe mean with its many trillions of miles of space and many billions of suns? We may not be able to understand life, know its purpose, what it is all about, but it is there, so we live it. One dies, and life is erased just as if it had never been. We just come and go away.

Death has a perfect batting average. It gets everyone. All the people who have ever lived on Earth have died. No one escaped. The wealthy cannot buy their way out of it. Great persons cannot overcome it. It conquers everyone.

Policies of good health can delay death but not prevent it. The body clock is ticking away. Death is the great equalizer that turns everyone to dust.

Time becomes more important in old age. When one is young, it doesn't matter much when a year is gone. Many years still remain. But if one is in old age and has maybe two years or so to live, when one year passes one has lost half of one's remaining lifetime.

Looking at old people, it is hard to realize that they had once been little babies with baby faces, small, soft hands and tiny fingers; that a wrinkled old lady had once been a very pretty young woman; that a frail, old man had once been a rugged athlete, a baseball catcher who could throw a baseball like a bullet to catch a baserunner.

Arising in the morning, I look at my face in the mirror. A few wisps of hair stand out from the head like the antennae of insects, making me look as if I have been electrocuted. I sigh about the thick shock of curly hair I once had.

When one is old one is satisfied with lesser pleasures. If one has been bedridden for a long time, one is happy just to be able to walk. If one has arthritis in the hand, just being able to unbend the fingers feels wonderful.

Many who are old don't wish to be called senior citizens or elderly. They fear that implies they are decayed, senile and all washed up. Therefore, they act with extra vigor and laughter to show they still have a youthful spirit. But being old is just a statistic of age and doesn't automatically mean that one is all through. So why pretend about it?

Humorous tales are told about old people being youthful. A very old lady in a nursing home was feted on her 103rd birthday. A performer was brought in to entertain. At the end he said, "Rose, I hope to come here next year and see you again," to which she replied, "I don't see why not. You look healthy."

Death has an appeal to some because it brings an end to pain and misery. It is like a deep sleep except that one does not awaken. A friend strove mightily against his illness for a long time, the way a turtle on its back tries hard to turn over and be on its feet. But he became weary of fighting. He was so tired of having pain that he wanted to give up. He told me one day that he thought of committing suicide by falling out of his hospital window, but changed his mind. I told him he had better be certain, because it is too late to change the mind once he is falling.

I remember some deaths. My father died in his sleep. It was as if he had slipped away into deep water without making a ripple. When my mother died, life went out of our home. The home seemed empty without her. An uncle had Alzheimer's disease before the end. It was painful to see. He had been a capable person who gave orders. He became like a helpless child. In such a sickness, life turns full circle. One begins life as an infant and ends it being infantile.

Most of us love life and wish it would never end. We don't want to lose our consciousness and wish to see the future. As someone said in an old Japanese plaint:

Worn is my old hurt body

and hard my movements to make.

But still, I kissing each day.

Charles Saltzman is a retiree living in Pinellas County.