I never met Mrs. Carroll, but she has showed up at our house every so often for thirty years. And she’s here again.
In October, I began training for the Camino de Santiago, a thirty-day, five-hundred-mile pilgrimage, some of it in the Pyrenees. A pretty good stretch of the legs by any reckoning. But I was a lot fitter than most people my age (seventy-nine). I could do it.
So a few weeks later, when recurrence of a back problem prevented me from walking much at all, it made me unhappy. Actually more than unhappy. I was ashamed.
I appeared to have changed suddenly from the young-old man that I think I am into an old-old man.
This is America. Injured is one thing; “well stricken in years” like Elizabeth and Zechariah is another. The first is more or less O.K.; wearing a big cast on the leg you broke skiing is manly, suggesting even a modicum of heroism. The latter is pitiable and repellant.
At the deer hunt this year, I stayed seated as much as I could and spoke less than usual. Walking was painful and sciatica made me unstable. As for talking, I couldn’t come up with much of a subject other than the pain in my back and legs, and back pain is so common, the usual response lies somewhere between boredom and “let me tell you about my back.” But this being America and I being a man, I was, more than anything, ashamed.
The hunt is an annual affair hosted by old friends Joe and his son William at their ranch in north-central Texas. Over the years, I’ve occasionally made it back from faraway places to join the hunt. A good thing about living in Texas again was to be able to go at will. This, though I’ve long since lost my enthusiasm for killing anything.
We were seven in number this year, ranging in age from late fifties to eighty-five. For one reason or another, four of us were a little unsteady on our feet. I was chagrined to be one of them. Shoot, I had run ten marathons as a young man. Mediocre times, but 26.2 miles is a long way at any pace. Just a month or so ago, I had thoroughly enjoyed two ten-mile hikes. When anticipating moving back to Texas, it had occurred to me that I could be helpful to my old friends who were moving along into infirmity a little faster than I. It was unwelcome news that I was at about the same stage as everybody else.
One morning when no one was looking, I took my cane from where I’d hidden it and tried to walk the fifty yards or so from the ranch house to a stock tank. It’s not much to look at. Just muddy water. But I wanted to find out if I could walk that far. It took about an hour, and it was painful. At least no one saw me.
Later in the day, some of us got in the Mule (a four-wheel-drive cross between a golf cart and a tractor) and went to collect seeds from a particular kind of native grass that William and Joe are encouraging. The instructions were straightforward. “Don’t bend over for the seeds. Just take those that are more than waist high.” I thought I could do that, but the ride had been rough, and it had aggravated my pain. I didn’t last long, but at least I didn’t fall. And I don’t think anyone noticed how close I came to it.
One of my sons lives in a house that is a long flight of stone steps below street level. On the one occasion I’ve been there in the six weeks or so I’ve been back in Austin, he and Ann had to help me back up the steps. I hated him seeing me so impaired. Anyone would feel that way, I suppose, but it would not have been quite so bothersome had it been clear that my impairment was caused by nothing more than a bad back. I imagined him thinking I’d come to the end of my time as a normally active human, nevermore to be his strong and able father. I’m not ready for that.
I’m facing the same difficulty at the house Ann and I are living in temporarily. It has five steps leading up from the sidewalk. I’ve left the house occasionally to take a short walk (it’s supposed to be good for sore backs) or to run an errand in the car. On bad days, I’ve had to get down on all fours to make it back up the steps, and more than once I’ve fallen and dropped a bag of groceries. In every case, my first response was to look around and see if anyone had noticed. Once when I was struggling down the steps (that’s as hard as going up), I blurted out to some people who were passing. “I’m not old. I’ve got a bad back.” How stupid. How American.
Western culture suffers from a number of isms, such as tall-ism (Lincoln would have been far less admired if he’d been the height of, say, Senator Corker), and that favorite of the right wing, what-about-ism. But no ism is harder to deal with than age-ism and its inseparable corollary fit-ism. I’ve just come face to face with that awful combination, and it has pissed me off.
As of this writing, my back feels a little better. That’s the way it is with back trouble. It comes and goes for no easily discernable reason. My problem may be gone entirely in a week or so. Nevertheless, I’ve made an appointment with a highly regarded doctor to see if he has something in his kit that is more lasting than the tincture of time. But even if he can offer no help at all, even if I spend the rest of my life on opioids and have to start using a walker and eventually wind up in a wheelchair, I’m all done with being ashamed of infirmity and old age.
I owe this advent of good sense to Mrs. Carroll, who has showed up unbidden like a Christmas angel.
Mrs. Carroll was a septuagenarian attorney at an Austin firm where Ann worked in 1987. She was infirm. Like me. She used a walker. I too have done a little of that. Until now, that’s where our similarity ended.
On her walker, Mrs. Carroll had a bell, the kind with a thumb key like kids have on their tricycles. In Ann’s telling, she would advance resolutely down the halls of the big office, ringing the little bell to beat the band and crying in a loud voice, “out of my way.”
I’m going to hang a sign around my neck.
SORE BACK. OLD. GET OVER IT.
Thank you, Mrs. Carroll. And Merry Christmas.
You don’t have to take my word for how it is to be infirm and old in America. See, for example, Frank Bruni’s excellent op-ed piece in the New York Times, “Are You Old? Infirm? Then Kindly Disappear.” READ