It suddenly occurred to me yesterday that although I call these pieces chronicles from the tenth decade, most of them have been mere reminiscence, about earlier times in my life, and that maybe it is time to explain what it is like to be 90. I began to think about this when I decided to get out the walking stick I have had since I fractured the Achilles tendon on my right leg a couple of years ago. It never properly healed, left me with a slight limp, which naturally has placed more strain on the left leg. I never found the walking stick made much difference but recently the strain on my left leg has re-emerged as a tweak in my groin, making walking more laborious than before.
This Achilles problem was caused by my false pride. I was visiting a friend in Dubrovnik, Croatia for three months. Dubrovnik is a small town surrounded by high stone walls, within which almost all of the streets are too narrow to accommodate vehicles, and precipitously steep. Every morning I went for a walk, up 287 steps, then down into the town again, and was quietly proud that I could still do it at 88. In my last days there I felt a slight soreness in my ankle, but did not think anything about it until I returned to Montreal. I had my bicycle in the shop for a tune-up, and when I emerged with it, I pushed off with my right leg, and snap! I felt my Achilles go, knew what it was (thanks to my years of following games), and that it would take months to heal; and off I went immediately to the hospital, where I was equipped with one of those cumbersome boots for the next three months or so. Gone was my bike, gone the 30 km rides I used to take around the periphery of Ottawa, or even the quick rides along de Maisonneuve to the coffee shop on Peel and Sherbrooke.
Although I had noticed, ever since I turned 80, that the debilitating effects of old age increased exponentially as one lived on, this reduction in mobility was the first effect that really made a difference to my life, restricting severely the range that I could travel on two legs, something I had always liked to do. In the previous 80 years I had been pretty free of health worries: tonsils out in my forties; prostate gland scraped in my seventies; a couple of attacks of gout; high blood pressure --- nothing that couldn’t be kept under control. Sex, of course, was well into my past by his time.
It was a different story in the following year as I approached the tenth decade, and became more brutally aware of the joys of old age. Three days after I returned from another trip to Dubrovnik (my last, I fear, given my debilitated condition), I was suddenly assailed by a failure to urinate, blocked by blood discharges. These discharges I had had for some 30 years, but they had never before blocked my urinating function. I had always supposed the bleeding was caused by an inefficient job done on my prostate, but that was mere supposition, arising from my intense medical ignorance. I had discovered that the presiding doctor had moved to Alabama, so evidently nothing good could be expected of such an idiot. A sentiment typical of my medical wisdom….
In the emergency room at the Jewish General my problem was cleared by means of an overnight catheter that I wore for 20 hours. It was a painful and pretty horrendous business, for whenever the flow blocked, the nurses had to come along, clear it out by means of agitating it and re-establishing the catheter. But if I thought I was over the worst, I had another think coming. Less than three weeks later, the day before my eighty-ninth birthday, I was due to go to an annual dinner given by my union ACTRA to its pensioners. I was looking forward to it, for it was being held in the Ritz-Carlton, a posh hotel where, in the 1950s, as a reporter on the hotel beat, I was a frequent guest at the opening night of the American singers they booked in the Ritz Café, most of whom I had interviewed earlier in the day. I had never set foot in the place since then, believing it to be beyond my means, and was remembering the many excellent dinners we had had here. On the way I had to call into a UPS office to send something to my daughter in Costa Rica. While in that office I began to tremble in a way I had never known before, and by the time I arrived at the hotel I was shaking all over like a mammy in a Lagos ju-ju club. I asked for water, sat down, and slowly began to realize I wasn’t going to make the dinner. The hosts bundled me into a taxi to send me home, and the last thing I remember was getting out of the taxi and struggling to step up on to the pavement. When I woke up I was in a hospital. Unfortunately it was a French hospital, and my inability to understand what was being said to me in French --- another of the joys of old age, that had gradually overcome me!--- was compounded by the fact that they insisted that everyone who came into my room wear a mask. At first they thought I had pneumonia with the possibility of tuberculosis down the road; but after assiduous investigation they decided I had a kidney infection, and put me on a rigorous diet of antibiotics which lasted for nine days. As we left the hospital, the reigning specialist muttered to one of my sons that a man of my age normally didn’t survive what I had been through.
Okay, one up for me. But four days out of hospital, my urination problem hit me again with a vengeance. Back into the Emergency Room, where they managed to relieve the problem, allowing me to have a cystoscope three or four days later. This was a veritable horror show in which a urologist took a ton of blood clots out of my bladder and told me if my problem reoccurred within the next 24 hours I should return to the emergency and insist they finish the job.
By the end of the next day it had reoccurred, and my daughter (visiting me by his time) accompanied me back to the hospital for another catheter. This time, a young nurse tried unsuccessfully to fit the catheter, but failed, and decided to leave it to someone else. Fortunately, in trying she had unblocked the system, so after an anxious night in the hospital I was allowed to go home without treatment. Blood continued to flow out of me for the next four days before, suddenly, like magic, it just stopped, disappeared from my urine, and has never been seen since.
I’ve never been able to decide since whether to the hospitals the aged are just a damn nuisance, or whether they welcome the fact that the older you are, the more you can be poked and prodded, the more likely it is that they will find things wrong with you. As I passed through the various scopes --- colonoscope (up your bum--2), cystoscope (down your penis --2), brachyoscope (down your throat ), CT scan (if I remember correctly, an all-over examination the results of which could keep the doctors in work for years), ETC or ECT or something like that, XYZ and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all, I felt I had to tell them: my body is 90 years old. The more you keep looking, the more inefficiencies you will find in it.
Indeed, one of the things I have discovered --- I am on to the Aged Wisdom section of the story now --- is that one by one, piece by piece, the various organs that keep you alive begin to wear out --- eyes, ears, nose and throat, stomach, kidneys, lungs, heart --- you name it, at 90 it isn’t working as well as it used to. What do the young know of such conditions as the deviated septum (crooked nostril), post-nasal drip (always blocking your throat with phlegm, thanks to --- you’ve got it, the deviated septum), the swelling of the prostate gland, the five times a night up to the bathroom, the slow dribble, if that, that is the old-age urinating function, the loss of hearing (inclining the young, especially the impatient young, to repeat what they had just said in quarter-time, and at double volume, as if you are a blithering idiot), the shortness of vision….you name it, bro, I have it, or have had it, all, and more.
Now, just to finish off, here I am almost 12 months later, with lung cancer. I spotted it in April. Three X-rays, two lung scans, another CT scan, a wrong diagnosis of pneumonia, a reluctant admission it could be cancer, followed by five radiation treatments, and now the prospect of a miracle cure from some expensive pill used to treat the rare mutation of my tumour that I am promised I have…. All to be followed I am sure, by an early death. So here I am, patience itself, smiling beatifically, always gentle and unassuming just as I have always been,, immensely grateful for our socialized medicine system, and, in spite of my manifold sins and crimes, omissions and mistakes, cruelties and haughty indifference, not at all worried about being recycled into the continuing drama of life on planet Earth.
So that is my one piece of Aged Wisdom: there don't seem to be many joys of old age, even when you are a non-querulous, unexcitable, straight-forward, easily pleased guy like me. Is it any wonder that in these sere years of my aged contentment, my mantra has become Wot the hell, wot the hell, toujours gai, toujours gai!
Yes, after all, wot the hell?