It started as a simple cold. I had a date with a friend who warned he had a bit of a sore throat and perhaps, we should postpone. Feeling bulletproof, I declined, declaring I was of pretty hardy stock and I would be fine. My folly would be my downfall.
Four days later, I fell helplessly into the mandibles of a nasty bug that would drag me down, growing progressively sicker each day until the constant cough and overwhelming weakness sent me off to a doctor for the first time in years.
I have been fortunate to have extraordinary health into my 60’s, with no chronic or serious conditions requiring medications and only a few acute situations that have all been remediated with a simple procedure or a dose of some modern pharmaceutical. For the most part, I have thrived on well prepared, fresh food, exercise and lots of time in the sunshine and country air.
But not this time. The nurse looked upon me with sincere compassion while I described myself as a vital and energetic specimen who doesn’t get sick or succumb to these sorts of “what’s going around” illnesses. I’m the one who delivers the soup to those who do, I pleaded.
I proclaimed through bouts of chest wrenching cough that a week ago I was hiking the hills feeling great and simply couldn’t understand how over the course of a few days I had been reduced to such a state that a morning shower required me to sit down and rest. She was professionally distant but I could see in her eyes that she understood. She was perhaps 8 years my junior and her apprehension of suddenly and helplessly being swept up by some life changing catastrophe showed through. It scared her as much as it scared me.
I left with a diagnosis of bronchitis compounded by asthma and a bag full of medication, instructed to come back for a follow up. I hated the steroidal compounds that were prescribed but understood my arsenal had failed me and this would require the bigger guns. I complied.
It’s now day five of the medication and progress is obvious but painfully slow. I am still weak and continue to cough uncontrollably, albeit, gratefully less frequently. I am not rebounding back and I’m frustrated. I’m not used to this and I don’t want to become accustomed to it. I refuse. My type A personality will not allow me to accept that I will be faced with situations along the end of my journey that render me helpless. Loss of control is my greatest fear and I push it away with all I am.
My image of growing older has always been one of a strong, fit body that would carry me through whatever unexpected calamities present themselves. I would push through whatever came with a commitment to exercise and sheer will to prevail.
When my knees tore their insides out from running the hills, that approach worked just fine, taking me through the surgery and physical therapy like a champ. When I could feel my strength declining just before 60, I doubled my efforts, lost 25 pounds and got in the best shape of my life. Spending everyday hiking, biking, swimming or in the climbing gym loving every minute until a diagnosis that threatened detached retinas took me off the bike and the wall and later a couple of broken ribs made physical excursion difficult.
Then came the bug. It was the last straw, and as I lie there, my resilience drained from my body without the strength to resist, I realized this was a completely different situation.
The next morning, I walked into the bathroom, leaned against the counter, my breath labored, my legs shaking under my weight and looked deeply into unfamiliar eyes, laden with heavy bags and dark circles, my skin an unearthly pallor, my hair suddenly even more grey, I thought, “My God, what is happening to me. I look like my mother.” I was devastated. I had in an instant become everything I swore I would never.
Of course, this is a cold with complications and I will make a full recovery. But the lesson ran deep. Being catapulted out of my comfort zone, challenged my expectations as I got a glimpse at what might be my lot. I may not live everyday engaged and vital in a body that remains strong and fit until it dies. That image may have been unrealistic.
It is possible, despite all I do to prevent harm, I may not get by unscathed. All the determination, the good intentions, the exercise and good nutrition; even the marginal enlightenment may not be enough. Pure grit may not hold me safe from the harsh effects of aging.
That’s a bitter pill, one I’m having a hard time gagging down. As I contemplate a plan to recover my strength and good health, I am troubled by the thought that what is eventually going to happen to me will be out of my control. Physiology, chemistry, biology and a long string of DNA will determine the course to my death. I can do my best, but what is ultimately going to happen, will happen to me.
I will try to wrap my head around this concept as time goes on, because frankly being confronted by it suddenly, in the grips of it, is even more frightening and disorienting. I know any plan I put in place will only be a stop gap and ancillary to whatever my body is experiencing, but there is some security in having considered the options before being faced with their reality.
No one gets out of this life alive and now I realize how we go about arriving at that moment is far more complex and complicate than I had originally imagined.