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The International Writers Magazine: Retirement Lifestyles

To Laugh and To Weep
Bruce Rutherford


Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.
---William Hazlitt

As one of my friends says quite often as he watches one of our foursome look in his golf bag for his wedge on the fourth hole forgetting that he left it unattended on the first hole, "It sure is fun to watch old people." This, of course, is generally followed by snickering from those of us who didn’t misplace a wedge…this time.

Of course, newspapers, magazines, and books are full of trying to answer the question "What should be considered old nowadays?" Is it defined as forgetting wedges? Or anything else? Conversation heard walking out of the grocery store the other day:
"Alan, where did we park.
It’s gotta to be here somewhere, Helen."

I haven’t talked to anyone of "advanced age" who thinks they’re "old." But one of my friends did tell me about a study that showed rats who want a longer life reduce their calories by 30%. Question: Who was the first scientist who knew that rats even wanted a longer life, and had the temerity to ask them? Another friend plays Mah Jongg online because a study showed that it reduces stress bought on by aging. Still another one can talk interminably on how eating salmon helps oxygen free-radical molecules from damaging your cells. Those of us who take the time to listen immediately think, "What the hell is a free radical?" One of my caustic friends said it sounds like someone who was once in jail for arguing against the government.

Living in a retirement community almost unavoidably makes one contemplate the aging process if not old age itself. Sometimes it is faced with an offhanded, flippant comment; sometimes with sorrow at a memorial service.

The community is ringed with tall, stately longleaf pines. They have been growing here for over 150 years and many live to be over 300 years old. When they’re young they grow a taproot 6 to 10 feet long. By maturity they have a wide spreading lateral root system with several deep "sinker" roots. I have long thought they stand as metaphors for those of us who have settled here, sinking our roots into the sandy soil with a trust that we will stay tall and stately. But "tall and stately" seems at times to be too much to hope for.

For the most part, the members of the community are an impressive bunch: the skipper of the first nuclear submarine to maneuver under the polar ice cap; a scientist who was one of the primary designers of the Hubble space telescope; an Olympic medal winner for diving; an NCAA wrestling champion; one of the original founders of the OSS in WW II and later a major officer in the CIA; the owner of the largest construction company on the East coast; doctors of all sort from well known surgeons to pediatricians; a fighter pilot who shot down a MIG in Vietnam; and a renown wine connoisseur who has lectured all over the world and has over 1000 bottles in his personal wine cellar. Then there is the person, a former Marine, who struck out Ted Williams…well almost. He was in Korea after the war and so was Ted Williams serving as a Marine pilot. "Our" marine, also named Ted, was pitching in a ball game when this tall, slim, professional looking ballplayer strolled to the plate to bat. Our Ted fired two fast balls by him on his first two pitches. The catcher ran out to the pitching mound and asked Ted, "Do you know who you’re pitching to?" Ted shook his head and the catcher leaned over and said, "Damn it, its Ted Williams." As our Ted tells it: "I gulped. Reared back and threw the hardest pitch I could muster and the last time I saw it, it was soaring higher than Sputnik, disappearing out of sight."
So much for striking out one of perhaps the best hitter in baseball.

There are more but this list is representative of "next door neighbors."

It is also representative of what happens to the "tall and stately" when age makes itself known. The nuclear sub commander has been struck down by multiple sclerosis and is now wheelchair bound. The Olympic diver has Meniere’s disease which without warning causes severe vertigo keeping him bed ridden for extended periods of time. The wrestling champion within the last year has been diagnosed with diabetes, has had three stints to repair three blockages going to his heart, and prostate surgery that because of a doctor’s error pierced his bowel causing further complications from which he is still recovering. Despite all of these problems, however, he demonstrated the flippant side of approaching the aging process. He said before he went in for the prostate surgery that he was looking forward to it because he was going to be one of the first patients who would have the surgery by a robot machine. He told the doctor he wanted to watch the surgery so he could see the robot in action. The doctor said, "Believe me you do not want to be awake for the surgery." He responded, "Hell, Doc, I’m a wrestler and know what pain is. Give me a stick to bite on."

The CIA officer, well into his 90’s, collapsed while getting ready to putt on the eighteenth hole. A doctor who just happened to be in the clubhouse was rushed to the green and resuscitated our CIA agent. When he awoke he said, "What’s wrong? I was only lying down to line up my putt." He is also famous for another quote when asked to give the members a presentation on his impressive career as a CIA operative. His response: "I would be happy to but I would have to kill all of you right after the lecture."

If the conversation is not about golf it often dwells on what age-fighting pills rest waiting in everyone’s bathroom cabinet. There are pills for all sorts of effects, from low blood pressure to high spirits. There are so many pills that everyone is aware of the cautions trumpeted by TV to let your doctor know you "have this so he won’t give you that." I always wonder why wouldn’t your doctor know everything you have or take? Would you want a doctor who didn’t?

Of course, with pills there are those discussions about pills such as Viagra, quite often accompanied by sly smiles. It appears that one’s sexual prowess, albeit sometimes requiring artificial inducement, is tightly connected to one’s feeling of age; however, a recent TV report said that over 65% of senior citizens still engage in sex. And then there is the question, which pill does one take?: the one when you don’t have any time to wait, or the one when you have a day and a half golf tournament and have to wait.

Too many times, however, discussions do not revolve around pills but memorial services. Age catches up with the members and it is not out of the ordinary to hear about someone passing away in the night. Sometimes it is a surprise and sometimes it is expected. The services always do justice to the life of the deceased. The CIA officer recently passed away and his obituary in the local paper took up almost one page, and this was also reflected in the service. The champion wrestler recently lost his wife to a massive brain aneurism. Entering the church there were two easels set up with pictures of her in her youth and after it was taken away by aging. She looked happy on both easels.
And it is not out of the ordinary that after the service the discussions do not focus on the death but the life of the person. Most of what is recalled is the laughing shared with the deceased, the pleasure of their company; age or the aging process not part of the feelings expressed.

What I recall about Paul, our CIA officer, was his love of the written word, especially poetry. We used to chat about his favorite poet Ezra Pound. It seemed to me that he could recall every poem he had written. Recalling one of our conversations, I remember Paul reciting Pound’s "And the Days are Not Full enough":
And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.

He had a sparkle in his eyes which did not betray his age. They were youthful, and full of looking forward to what was going to happen next.
© Bruce Rutherford December 2007
Southern Pines, NC
Email: brutherford1at nc.rr.com
Author Bio: A retired Marine aviator and former chair of the Department of English at the United States Naval Academy, Colonel Bruce Rutherford holds a Masters degree in Arts from the University of Connecticut and has found his second act teaching English at a local community college. Bruce lives with his wife and four cats in North Carolina where he is currently at work on a memoir.To Laugh, To Weep


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