This is The Way Being Old Works For Me
First I had a hard time waking up. My bum knee flared up yesterday and now the left calf was tight and aching from limping. I kept shifting to try to get comfortable and dozing until ten a.m., when I realized I was hungry. Not hungry enough to fool with official breakfast: sliced jack-cheddar and honey ham on whole wheat with mayonnaise, with a diet Coke. Didn’t want to bathe because it takes so much energy, but it’s too easy to ignore baths to conserve energy these days, so I forced myself.
The bathroom sink needs cleaning, the scattered pieces of soap need rounding up, a dried-out roll of toilet paper that I knocked into the commode needs disposing of — all the things you notice when you’re planning an outing but some still small voice is saying “not today, don’t go out today.”
When did dressing become such an ordeal? Propping on walls and door frames to step into underwear, then pants; having to curl into an uncomfortable ball to capture a distant foot and subdue it with a sock? Each move accompanied by stabs of pain from the sites of old injuries. Left arm is allowed to dangle as the shirt is fitted; raise it above rib level and the rotator cuff fires off pain signals that ricochet all the way to my fingers — still numb from struggling with my socks.
Am I the only seventy-year-old who has to take a breather before confronting shoes? And meanwhile the day is slipping away. I fill my Stanley bottle with coffee, remember to unplug the pot, fill a stainless steel bottle with iced tea and a jug with water for the dog. It’s so mild I only stuff a light insulated vest in the backpack along with the bottles and my two pipes.
Damn it I know I packed the pipes!
I remembered to carry down some things I’m going to give my son, including some cute Christmas ornaments, before I harness the dog and take the backpack down, and feel very on top of things. It’s just past noon time when I make my second trip down; Hunter assumes her co-pilot seat, I pour a travel cup of coffee, start the Bronco, and fumble in the knapsack for my first pipe of the day.
No pipes. They must have fallen out when I took out the coffee jug. Nope, not in the car. Maybe they fell out when I bent over to try to coax Hunter into trying the back seat where she can spread out. She was having none of that. Never been in the back seat, ain’t going now. Maybe I didn’t notice the sound of pipes hitting pavement.
No pipes outside the car, no pipes under the car; no pipes in the parking lot, or in the lobby, or in the downstairs hallway. Nobody’s seen anything lying in the hallway in the past ten minutes. No pipes on the elevator floor. I go all the way back to the apartment, checking every jacket I considered taking today, and every flat surface I can see. This is when I would normally consider that all the signs and portents are saying I should abort my outing. I’ve already lost two good canes on previous outings this year, one to a minor-league baseball game in Tacoma and one to the Western Washington State Fair.
I override my superstitious upbringing and head north. Interstate traffic isn’t as bad as it could be on a December weekend. I would have had time to stop at Cabela’s if I got under way on time. But going through Olympia it is already one p.m. I stop in a rest area for Hunter to do her business and stretch her legs, then later at an A&W for a barbecue sandwich and small root-beer float, when a headache begins to nag behind my eyes. Of course I forgot to bring a migraine tablet.
With all the distractions and delays I still make it to my son’s house by 2 p.m. Nobody’s home.
I know he was staying home this weekend because he had to be on call for his employer, the City of Seattle. I call him on my cell phone. I’m here, where are you? Straight to voicemail.
Hunter and I wander around the property, me limping on my cane and Hunter filling her nose with all kinds of outdoor odors while I half-heartedly look over my dilapidated vehicles and boat that Beau keeps for me; it’s been over a year since the white Bronco I was driving daily fried its alternator on a trip up here, resulting in a nightmarish weekend that culminated in buying two new batteries — and needing each of them in turn to make it back up here to pick up the Blue and Silver Bronco he had just installed a new radiator in. Haven’t been able to put aside the money for an alternator for the white one, and he hasn’t had time to fix it anyway, so no backup vehicle. I reflect gratefully that the one with the new radiator has been absolutely dependable all that time.
I absolutely should have known better.
But it started perfectly when I cranked up to leave, after trying Beau’s phone a couple more times. I decided to stop at a nearby Fred Meyer’s, a company with no store in Chehalis that I miss a lot, for the quality of their goods and courtesy of their employees. Both are up to snuff in Bonney Lake; I find a new pair of jeans for a good price since my stomach has shrunk and my pants keep trying to fall off. I grind some of their proprietary coffee that I have always liked. A handful of grocery items; the deli person comes out from behind the counter to bring my purchases; the checker comes from the register to help me put stuff on the belt.
Happy with the experience, I call Beau once more. Once more to voicemail. It’s dark now, as the days shorten toward the very shortest a week from today. Feels later than it is — five — and the things I brought up for him are undelivered, and the things I was going to pick up are not picked up. Over a half a tank of gas wasted. Still, it was a pleasant drive on one of the mildest days lately, and I got some good views of Mount Rainier buried in fresh snow. When all that starts melting, there will be some hellacious high water.
I turn the ignition switch. Click. Dead.
I can’t believe it. But I should: I ignored the signs and portents, and I dared to feel good about the Bronco’s dependability over the past year and a half. At least I have a cell phone; for several weeks I didn’t. And oh yeah, I almost forgot it — wouldn’t have remembered it if I hadn’t seen it in the apartment while searching for those still-missing pipes.
AAA has been a godsend before; their emergency road service person today sounds as if she’s been waiting all shift just to help me. She even mentions how long I’ve been a member and thanks me for it! Nor does she act like I’m a moron not to know the Fred Meyer’s address; all I have to say is Bonney Lake and she pulls it up on her computer. She issues the standard disclaimer: if someone’s not there in an hour, call back.
But this time before I can walk back inside to get a bite to eat, Fred’s Towing calls and says he’s pulling in. I’m not surprised because I lived on the plateau for a long time and Fred’s impressed me then with their response times. I don’t know the young man driving, but he’s pure Plateau stock: bearded, competent, patient. Somehow the call got passed as a lockout, not a dead battery — no problem he says, and goes to get his jump pack.
The battery won’t awaken. He hypothesizes it is dry. And it is — almost bone dry. I always took it to be one of those sealed maintenance-free batteries, but it’s something in between the kind you check and the maintenance-free kind. He shows me how to pry off plates I thought were permanently affixed, and gets a cup of water from the Baskin Robbins. It takes two cups. We let the battery sit to think about it, try again. Still nothing.
But it’s a Ford. I drove one of my Broncos for weeks when I had to jump it at the solenoid with a screw driver. I find a screw driver. We get a spark. The ignition clicks. But that’s all. Well, he says, it looks like this has turned into a tow. Where to? I call Beau again. Still no answer.
I guess we’re going to Chehalis, I say. At 69 miles, it lies within the 100-mile radius of my AAA Plus membership — one of an old man’s smartest annual investments. The hardest part is getting Hunter into the cab of the big noisy diesel. She absolutely will not enter voluntarily; this is not her truck. And she weighs around seventy pounds — not an issue in my youth, but a big deal now. I feel the bone chips, cartilage, whatever, grind in my left shoulder and the pain is so severe I almost drop her. But she’s got her front paws in now and scrambles on up.
Once the Bronco is secure up on the hulk-hauler, we’re off. Hunter is panting furiously, nervous, can’t seem to settle. She sits with her paws on my lap and keeps twitching at every sound, at all the headlights streaming by. Somehow I yard her onto my lap and hold her, gentling her, my stressed joints screaming all the while. I had the foresight to load a vest pocket with her bacon treats; lucky to have a full bag in the Bronco. I feed her small nibbles at a time to distract her, and once she starts sniffing to see which hand has the treat, she calms down and licks my hand and her heart slows down.
It’s a long slow slog to Chehalis, interrupted only by Beau finally checking in. If he can help you, we can turn right around, the driver says; I have to go back anyway. But Beau had no vehicles I could drive. It was too late to buy an alternator even if I had the money. So we plod all the way to Chehalis, arriving at seven, right on the driver’s GPS predicted time of arrival. Hunter is happy to abandon ship and I walk her around, my left leg acting as if it wants to give way, while the driver unloads the Bronco. He almost blocks his truck against the lower parking-lot wall and has to back and fill repeatedly to free it.
When he pulls out I don my backpack with my Fred Meyer’s purchases and limp the far way around — there’s no shortcut to the lower parking lot if you are physically unable to negotiate the wall. I am beginning to think my night is finally over — until Hunter, still running in circles releasing nervous energy, does something she has never done before. She wraps the leash around a rhododendron bush and when I gesture for her to go back around — a command she has honored since a pup — she instead runs in front of the bush, wrapping the leash tight. My frustration spills over and I yell at her — and she takes another lap around the bush.
It is pitch dark. I take out my headlamp and try to see where the leash is tangled. The bush’s branches and leaves block any view. I so do not want to try to get down on my knees in the dirt. It’s wet for one thing, and there’s no post or wall close enough for me to use as leverage to regain my feet. For a crazy moment I consider unleashing her and trying to lead her in by her collar — no. My hands are too numb, she is too wrought up, she’s never been led just by the collar before and if she breaks my grip she’s liable to run loose because she’s so confused by all the strangeness.
Nothing for it but to go to my knees in the mud and try to untangle the mess. The branches almost knock my glasses off. I can’t crane my neck enough to bring the bifocals into play; my neck has stiffened up. Everything is a blur. I try to lean on the branches to press them aside; nothing doing. Hunter keeps tugging, trying to get loose. I try to get her to sit but she won’t for more than thirty seconds. I stop trying. I’m in no position to enforce it and she would get afraid of me if I yell.
So I take it out on the rhody: I rip two or three branches loose so I can push my face close enough to use the bifocals. Bending over to pass the handle of the leash around and under the branches it is bound on wakes up the stenosis pain in my lower back and I almost topple into the bush. I have to prop on my aching left arm with its flared-up rotator cuff while I fumble right-handed. I lose track of time.
Finally it is free — and Hunter almost rushes around the next bush over. This time I yell sit and she sits. I have to walk on my knees to the low curb, maybe six inches high. I put my feet down on the pavement and turn, using that slight elevation of my rump to get me started, then driving up with my cane — thank God it’s a stout hickory pig-show stick, not a commercial cane, or it would snap under my weight like a toothpick. Like my hiking staff did a couple years ago when I tried that maneuver after setting out silhouette goose decoys on my knees. Beau was with me that day, and got me back on my feet.
It seems a minor miracle when Hunter and I make the last fifty yards to the front door without another incident. I key my access code and we walk to the elevator, and now Hunter wants to lead the parade because her last drink of water was in Bonney Lake and she knows her bowl is upstairs. I let her in the apartment and she makes a bee-line, not waiting for me to remove her leash. She almost sucks the bowl dry by the time I get there — all that nervousness and panting on top of the long wait — and I refill it and she goes back at it.
I crawl painfully out of my muddy jeans and decide to try on my new pair, what the hell. They fit wonderfully. I drink some iced tea and take all my anti-inflammatories — no pain pills; the damn clinic won’t prescribe them. It’s going to be a while before things begin to settle down. It’s time for a pipeful of tobacco. Which reminds me of the lost pipes when I see the two I use daily. I pick up my Tanganyika clay, stuff it and fire it up. Then I need to go to the bathroom. As I bend over to raise the seat, the heavy, irreplaceable meerschaum slips out of my teeth and plummets toward the bowl…
Without conscious thought, my left hand scoops it out of midair.
I stand there and stare at it, my arm screaming from the sudden, swift move. I’ll be damned; it looks like there are vestigial reflexes remaining from my salad days as a third baseman and wing-shooter. Maybe the bad things are over for the night and it’s time for some good things. I don’t even try to stifle the thought due to superstition; damn it, I deserve a change for the better after this day.
I realize I have not put the groceries away from the knapsack and go to take care of that, carefully setting the meerschaum aside. As I unzip the main compartment my eye falls on the empty front compartment where memory tells me I zipped in my other two pipes all those long hours ago. This is not my everyday knapsack. As I pull out the groceries, I feel something against my knuckles through the nylon.
Between the main compartment and the front compartment is a third, almost invisible, that I completely forgot about. In that forgotten third compartment are the two pipes I thought I lost when I was leaving.
It’s just been that kind of day.
(NB: This is an eight-year old entry. I was 70 that year and thought myself old and disabled. Eight years later, with sarcoidosis having returned, lymphedema, debilitating stenosis and a “dead” right leg from lumbar nerve pinches that keep me essentially bedridden, I can make ten steps to the bathroom and twenty to this work-station only by leaning heavily on a wheeled walker.