No young man believes he shall ever die. . . . There is a feeling of Eternity in youth which makes us amends for everything. To be young is to be as one of the Immortals. One half of time is indeed spent — the other half remains in store for us, with all its countless treasures . . . .
— William Hazlitt
Getting old bites. I saw both of my grandfathers over the holidays, and it’s clear to me that they are both not the men they used to be.
My dad’s dad (whom my brother and I always called Grandfather, but is now generally referred to as G2, because he’s Great-Grandfather to Nate’s kids and that’s what they call him) is 76. He had a stroke last year shortly after his 75th birthday. He had a difficult time in the immediate aftermath – a lot of physical therapy, mind exercises, and the like – but was steadily improving. He was certainly more forgetful than he had been, and his hearing was going, but he was still working 4 days a week, just like before the stroke. A week or so before Christmas this year, he had what’s been confirmed as another small stroke. Testing shows he’s mostly back to where he was prior to that, with some small exceptions, but it’s obvious to everyone that this could be the beginning of the end for him mentally.
He’s a lawyer, and he practices alone. Word in my family is that Grandfather’s wife, to whom he’s been married more than 25 years, has convinced him to stop working this year because it’s getting to be too much of a struggle for him, between having to remember minute details and trying to hear in the courtroom. He’s agreed, but the nature of his job is such that he can’t just quit. He has to close out the cases he has and make sure his clients have other representation if there are outstanding issues. He’s agreed, though, not to take on any new cases, and he expects it to take him a full year to wind down the practice.
I can’t imagine what he must be going through. This is a man who sits at the head of the Thanksgiving table and tosses out legal quandries for the family to discuss, then offers up his solution. He’s starting to tell the same stories multiple times in one evening. This is a genius Hearts player who knows in his head exactly what’s left to be played and who took what trick; he’s the official scorekeeper, and when he’s winning, he slyly asks the rest of us, “Does anyone want the scores read?” The math is getting harder for him. This is a man who does the New York Times crossword puzzle in pen every Sunday. The last several I’ve seen on his coffee table have been unfinished.
Physically he’s mostly fine, and people in our family are long-lived, and so I envision a future for him where he has a body that can do everything he needs it to do but behind his bright blue eyes he’s reaching for words that don’t come. I hate to say it, but if it comes to that, I hope he’s too far gone to know any different.
My mom’s dad, my Grandpa, is having the opposite problem. He’s 86, and he has spinal stenosis, which Google tells me is “A condition due to narrowing of the spinal cord causing nerve pinching which leads to persistent pain in the buttocks, limping, lack of feeling in the lower extremities, and decreased physical activity.”
This is a fairly recent development; I saw him in early June and he either was not symptomatic or he hadn’t had any problems yet. This time, he’s walking with two canes (I can only assume using a walker would make him feel old) and it is slow going. It was actually painful for me to watch him try to walk up and down steps, and when we got to wherever we were going, he would find the chair nearest the door and station himself there for the duration. No one can blame him, of course; he doesn’t complain, but he’s clearly in a lot of pain.
My Grandpa is a character. He’s also a lawyer, though he hasn’t officially practiced in years. When I was a kid, he terrified me because he’s Italian and loud and prone to yelling over the voices of anyone who disagrees with him. I’ve come to learn that he doesn’t mean any harm by it; he lives for debate, and the yelling was largely a product of hearing loss, which he only corrected with hearing aids in the last couple of years (the aids have not, however, resulted in a reduction in yelling; I think he just knows it’s expected of him).
The other thing about my Grandpa, which makes the physical problems he’s having so hard to bear, is that he is a real get-up-and-go guy, from the crack of dawn til midnight. He raised six kids with my Grandma (they’ve been married more than 61 years) and worked as a criminal defense attorney for over 50 years, in addition to volunteer work in the community, and since he retired, running the public golf course my uncles own (he’s out on the mowers in the spring and summer, in the kitchen hollering and cooking up a storm, and just generally commanding his troops). There’s more that he does, but I’m exhausted just telling you all of that!
Needless to say, being limited to essentially moving from one stationary position to another all day is no picnic for him. He’s mellowed a bit in his old age, and he’s a good sport about the pain he’s in, but you can tell he wishes he could be as much a part of life as he was before. He loves to be in the middle of the action getting things done. It’s hard to watch him watching life going on around him. My biggest fear is that he’s going to end up confined to a bed. He would be miserable; no one does things exactly the way he wants them done, of course, and so he prefers to do them himself; not being able to would be a nightmare for him.
I can’t decide which grandfather has it worse – and maybe it’s equally bad for both of them, considering their personalities – but that isn’t the point of this at all. I love and admire these men: They are pillars of goodness, wisdom, and strength in my life, and seeing them end up human like the rest of us is breaking my heart.