As many baby boomers do, I’ve needed total knee replacements for several years, but I’m scared to death I’ll have a stroke if I do. The doctor says my best chance for not having one would be to lose some weight. But guess what, folks, I still don’t look like Twiggy. So what, I tell myself, if my bones are grinding bone against bone. And so what if I have this ghastly vision that in a couple of years I’ll be ten inches shorter and the skin on my legs will be bagging in folds at my ankles and I'll look like I’m wearing flesh colored gaiters. My brain will still be intact and my husband, Don, and I won’t have to share a room at the nursing home while the dog goes off to a shelter. Whenever this scary thought passes through my mind, I look around the kitchen wishing the fairy godmother of brownies has left some that I can stuff in the biggest hole in my face.
Seriously, thought, there are days when the pain is about to fry my senses and I want to shove Don---a stroke survivor---out of his wheelchair and scream, “Get up so I can sit down!" But I keep that thought to myself because I’m not Kathy Bates in Steven Spielberg’s movie Misery. No, I’m a good little caregiver-slash-wife and we caregivers-slash-wives know what that means. We bottle it up and button it down and keep our feelings and fears to our selves until the pressure builds up too much. That’s then we yell something like: “Do you have to leave your dirty socks on the floor!?” Why do we women do that, not share with our mates what's really poking pins in our butts and making us grumpy?
I’ll be the first to admit it. One of the reasons I don't want to get my knees replaced is because overweight old people don’t look good naked. We’ve got bulges and things that look better draped in clothing. It’s not just the extra pounds but at a certain age we start growing things: warts and moles and bumps of unknown origin.
So instead of getting my knees over hauled I keep pretending and telling everyone who will listen that I’m older than I really am. If I were eighty, for example, it would be acceptable to spend guilt-free hours sitting at my computer or lusting over the new varieties of sweet peas in the Park’s Seed Catalog. No one ever told me that housewifely things required so much walking around. Vacuuming and dusting and cooking, who cares! If I were eighty, I could eat dill pickles for breakfast.
Growing older and imperfect makes you feel like you’re also growing invisible. I could walk into a bank in broad daylight, rob it and no one but the security camera could describe me. I hate feeling invisible. Even worse is being noticed and treated like my brain is operating on only two of eight its cylinders. “Here’s your change, dear. Can you find your car in the parking lot?” Elvis may have left the building, but I still have all the bats in my belfry. Thank you, very much.
Our concept of age is a curious thing. For many months after Don turned fifty, he had a glorious time telling everyone he was sixty so that he could then hear them say, “You look so young for your age!” It was a joke he played on waitresses, to ask them for their senior citizen discounts only to be turned down while feeding his ego. Then one day we went to a state park and when attendant in the booth told him it would be $10.00 to go to the beach. Don replied, “Does that included the senior’s discount?” thinking he’d get this young girl to pay him a compliment. But she didn’t. She looked him straight in the eye and said, “Sorry. That will be $5.00 then.” Don got an expression on his face like a young cat that just caught his first mouse and he didn’t know quite what to do with it. It was the last time he ever asked for a senior discount.
What is it that William Faulkner said? “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” What did he mean? That we cannot escape our past? It’s true, you know. Our lessons learned and favorite pranks are always with us, tucked away like souvenirs carefully glued down in scrapbooks. I’m telling this to all the young people I know so that one day when they visit me, old and sitting in a wheelchair, they won’t assume that the smile on my face is from passing gas. The smile, I want them to know, could be because I'm playing in my memory garden and dreaming of the days before I started wearing flesh colored gaiters.
Jean Riva ©
Painting: Egon Schiele