Like many of us I read before bedtime for an hour or so, sitting in my recliner and holding the two halves of a book splayed open in my hands; the house dark but for my book light illuminating the pages of my chosen novel. The house is quiet, the night is calm, my wife is sound asleep; our two dogs and our cat are safely ensconced in their respective pet beds.
I can’t remember exactly when I first noticed that something appeared wrong with my hands, but I know it was the spotlight cast by the book light’s LEDs that first alerted me. The skin on the back of my hands and fingers was wrinkled, desiccated and flaccid; it was an absolutely appalling discovery. To make matters worse, when I explored my forearms and other parts of my body’s skin it was easy to see the scourge was rapidly spreading and would eventually consume my entire outer shell.
Well, I did what probably many men of my generation would do: I went to my wife to report this awful affliction and to seek her counsel on what could be done about it. My spouse—Ellen—patiently explained that it was called crepey skin(yes, yes, I agree, we should go ahead and just call it creepy skin) and it was nothing to be alarmed about because most of us get it, sooner or later. I asked her why I had it and she didn’t—tacitly implying I shouldn’t have it if she didn’t have it—to which she snorted, “That’s you all over; I suppose if you had a brain tumor you’d wish one on me, as well.” After a brief hesitation, I said, “No, of course not.” She pointed out the fact that I mostly grew up in Florida and spent tons of time at the beach, surfing and skimboarding; a lot of damage to my skin resulted since sun screen lotions were not widely popular or even available until the 1980s. She added that there were various lotions I could apply daily to slow the ailment’s progression, but that nothing could stop the effects of time’s inexorable march upon our corporeal existence.
Great, just great, I thought to myself; it was just one more thing in the ever expanding list of ways that life unfairly penalizes us, the older people. I don’t like the term senior citizen and I try not to use it, as if by not using it I can magically slow down the ageing process. I don’t even remember when all of this stuff got out of hand, yet another inequitable hurdle thrust in my path. See what I mean?
I mean, c’mon, people, I can open doors, just fine, and no, I don’t need assistance getting my groceries to my car. And why do people insist on calling me Mr. Hyndman, instead of just Jeff? Mr. Hyndman was my dad, not me. I idly wondered if I started wearing a Jeff name tag if it would help with this dilemma. Probably not. When I was substitute teaching regularly at a nearby middle school, I would specifically ask teachers and staff whom I typically saw every week to call me Jeff and not Mr. Hyndman. A couple of the younger women teachers flat out refused to do so, telling me that they just weren’t comfortable calling me by my given name! Good grief.
I do admit that searching for lost nouns is a recent—well, perhaps not so recent since I can’t recall how long ago it started—predicament that I struggle with on a regular basis. I mean I know the definition of the word I seek, but the denoted noun hides from me in the cavernous, disorganized space we call our minds. It feels like the mental retrieval process is malfunctioning and deliberately haunting me, as if I am a contestant on a game show where I am losing round after round to the younger contestants, who openly snicker at me.
And to add insult to injury, when I ask Ellen for the noun I seek because I know that she likely knows the elusive noun, just by asking her she suddenly can’t locate the noun either, lost in the ether of our minds, as if we are entangled together, both of us careening down the same dwindling path towards an ever closer destination.
Oh, God, I’m sure the reader is thinking, is he next going to talk about and complain about his health problems? No one likes to hear older people moan and groan about their medical issues, partly because it reminds those who are not yet older folks that they, too, are passengers on the same train, just farther back on the train, but all of us will eventually exit at the same station. But worse, seniors (see, here I used the term I said I avoided using; perhaps I already forgot about my earlier stated declaration) are often perceived as not just older versions of their younger selves, but wholly different people, almost like strangers who inexplicably happen to live in the same world as those younger than themselves.
The frustrating reality for we older folks is exactly the opposite of the canard that over the decades we are seen to have gained some measure of wisdom and maturity, when in truth we most often experience the not very subtle impatience of those younger than us manifesting zero interest in most anything we might say on most any subject. This is especially so whenever we try to talk about our youthful experiences and memories, at which our fledgling listener’s eyes dart about in the hope of finding someone or something to distract them from this wholly tiresome subject. It obviously takes a lot of the listener’s effort not to openly roll his or her eyes. I remember a couple of years ago when our daughter was explaining to her mother how Uber worked, and to her great surprise discovered that Ellen was actually familiar with Uber.
Perhaps it was much the same when we were young, I’m not sure. But I am sure that even viewed through the prism of time, in our youth the world didn’t feel as dark and forbidding as I fear it does feel for the generations that followed us, the baby boomers. Despite the tragic Vietnam War, the fight for civil rights, women rights and the Cold War with the Soviet Union, we believed, however naively we may have been, that we could and would make the world a better place. And in some very important ways we absolutely did make the world a better and fairer place to live, but the enmity across our country today is unparalleled and frightening. It is very hard to see how or when the extreme polarizations of today will dissipate, but I fear it may not happen in my lifetime. But I digress and have gone far afield from the essay’s subject matter, so my apologies to the reader and I shall endeavor not to again fall down the rabbit’s hole.
The central theme here is that it is not easy to age in America, which is likely the same everywhere else. Contrary to the happy, glowing faces of older Americans we see on television commercials touting various pharmaceutical products to combat, or at least to hinder, our inevitable demise from cancers, dementia, depression or other maladies, in the real world I see few jubilant faces among the elderly. The fact is that for most of us growing older is neither easy nor fun. Most of us cannot afford to globe trot around the world; many of us are weighed down by various health or financial issues; and many of us have lost our spouse and partner in life, which is usually devasting and many of us will never recover from that loss.
Sure, for those of us with children and grandchildren it can be wonderful to be a part of their lives, but their lives are busy between work, parenting and friends, which is how it should be, I know. Once you arrive at the point in life when just knowing that there is much more life behind you than ahead of you, it gnaws at your spirit a little more each year while you wish you could just slow the whole thing down.
On occasion I am perplexed when I look at the reflection in the mirror and don’t recognize whose face it is; it’s as if the picture of me in my mind no longer matches the he that stares back at me. How is this possible? Quantum trickery, perhaps? Surely not an old man’s vanity.
Jeff Hyndman is a retired IT worker who lives an hour south of Atlanta with his wife, Ellen, their two dogs, Carmela and Cash and their cat, Daisy, who pretty much runs the show. Jeff started writing essays recently and his first published essay can be found at: https://www.youmightneedtohearthis.com/stories/the-meeting