Today I went to see my primary care doctor. I’ve only seen her once before, last October. That was a fast pandemic visit in which we had no physical contact. She asked me a bunch of questions, renewed a few prescriptions and sent me on my way fast. She was just transitioning from the pandemic’s virtual visits back to in-person ones. That was fine for me. I am always eager to get out of medical appointments. The doctor I’d been seeing for years had swapped out her clinical practice in favor of teaching residents at the hospital connected with our clinic, right before the lockdown. As a mom of two toddlers, I think she opted for a more favorable work schedule. Good for her, bad for me. I’ve always hated going to doctors, at least for myself. I’m all in as a patient advocate for someone else. But since I was a little kid, I’ve been averse to all things medical. I can’t determine the cause of this negative attitude but historically, anyone still alive in my family will vouch for my notoriously bad patient behavior. I was only five when I conned my mother into leaving the room so I could swallow my baby aspirin in private when I was actually dumping them into the heating vent behind the couch. I resisted every injection and had to be held down to get a shot in me. I can still see my dad chasing me around with a teaspoon full of yucky cough syrup, trying not to spill it, only to finally catch me, get it in my mouth and watch me spit it out immediately all over white bedsheets. He swore a lot at me on those days. I’d climb up shelves in our apartment’s pantry, anything to get away. Over time, I’ve improved somewhat but I have to be in dire condition before I offer myself up voluntarily for a doctor visit. Years ago, I managed to pass a kidney stone and survive a gallbladder attack, both remarkably painful experiences, without going in for a visit until they’d both subsided. I hate it all, getting weighed, having blood drawn from my inherited minuscule veins and having my blood pressure taken. I view being sick as a betrayal of my body which I know is irrational. Everything about being physically impaired makes me mad. I was always grouchy and sullen at home when I was sick and am a challenging patient with doctors, asserting my own opinions and assuming an equal footing which works for some of them and doesn’t for others. I think that my knee jerk responses are clearly tied to all the years of my mom’s multiple and constant illnesses. But as I’ve moved through my adult life I think there’s a different issue at work that’s more to do with the inexorable march toward becoming diminished and losing control over this vulnerable corporeal sack that houses my brain. During this most recent appointment which was a full on physical exam, I was keenly aware that I’ve passed into that age group which is on the clock, whether I want to be or not. There were definite old people elements in my exam, questions about hearing, all the elimination functions, little tests for neuropathy in my feet along with reflex responses. I saw these practiced with my mom on countless occasions. Now they’re about me as I begin my eighth decade on this earth.
I walked out of that appointment thinking the word “ephemeral” to myself, over and over. For the moment, I am definitely in pretty good condition, all blood values perfectly normal, an unremarkable physical exam and essentially, tolerable, small niggling aches and pains that for the most part, are easily ignored. But that’s just for right now. Although luckily resilient and generally robust, I am no longer what I once was, except for when I assert my mind over my matter. I can still do a lot, but I’m slower. Tasks take longer and feel bigger. My idea of myself still reflects what I once was physically while the dissonance of what actually is, butts up against that image. I am in that group of those who can still access scores of vivid memories. With each day that passes, they move further into what will ultimately be the minuscule void where I once occupied space. All that experience which was so big and important will have left a tiny ripple in the vastness of time.
I’m thinking of all the events which have been crammed into what has not even yet been a full seven day week. Last Friday, my daughter suffered a grievous unexpected loss of a beloved colleague who died too fast and too young. The day after that I attended a Zoom memorial for a thirty eight year old young man. He was part of a glorious bunch of summers at what was essentially a family camp we attended at a dingy resort in Michigan for just under ten years, with a group of college friends and their families. He died of an overdose. There were 125 people at that virtual event. I didn’t know a bunch of them but some of my oldest friends and their kids were there. An emotionally exhausting experience packed with so many memories that were part of those days when I was a young mother, and Michael was surging with strength, with no inkling of what lay in his genes that would attack him years later. But of course. What we don’t foresee is a gift. The next day I was off to O’Hare airport to drop my son off for another one of his trips to a faraway place, which during this pandemic, creates anxiety for me. He’s traveled the world as a biologist for years but I still can’t just relax and not worry, especially since he’s had some scary experiences. I guess that will always be part of the parental role which I retain, perhaps more than some people, because mothering my own mom for decades was anathema for me and definitely is not what I wish to confer on my own children. Then it was back home and dealing with a leaky roof, only a few years old, which led to insurance adjusters and contractor appointments. I swam a lot, overdoing it of course, because I was so glad to return to the pool, ultimately giving myself such a stiff upper back that I was screeching in pain and moving like a stiff scarab beetle.
I spent time with my grandson. I worked my way through the sixth anniversary of my brother’s death. I got my hair cut, reverting to a style I used to have when I was in my twenties. We’ll see how long that lasts. The only physical aspect of me from that time which is within my reach is the hairstyle.
A continued probe through my endless photo project unearthed a 50 year old contact sheet with a picture of the building that was the focal point of alternative campus life during the early 1970’s. I managed to get a decent enough image to post to my social media. Among other responses, I heard from a young history teacher who works at the high school my kids attended. Serendipitously, he’s assigned his class a project which takes place virtually, at that very site, which he’d never seen. That precipitated a meeting between us so I could share some background with him. I have evolved into a primary source, just like microfilm in a library archive. Ironically, that evening, I attended a meeting of my city’s historic preservation commission as I am a board member. Apparently hanging with the relics is a significant and apropos part of my current life. Today, I decided to cut myself a little slack. Instead of swimming, I went for a stroll through a lovely park on campus. The dorms where I lived during my freshman and sophomore years were within two blocks of my walk. In fact, most of my rental houses from years ago, along with my house that’s been home since 1978, are all within about a two mile circumference from the path I was walking today.
I’ve spent time at this beautiful arboretum in the past. When my son was a junior in high school he was enrolled in a life-changing field biology class. He spent countless hours wandering around with his net, catching insects to ensure that he had the best collection possible. One day he dragged us over to the pond feature in the park so we could watch him snatch dragonflies in mid-flight with his bare hands. It was quite dazzling and unforgettable, seeing fingers move that quickly. I couldn’t have done that at any age. On a far different occasion, years later, when Michael had been pulled back from death by an experimental drug, we drove there to be out in a beautiful natural setting, close enough to home so that we could get him back to bed if the fresh air was too much. Little snatches of life that exist in my memory and perhaps my son’s regarding the dragonflies, which will vanish after we’re gone except for those I write down which may or may not be read by some family member I don’t even know now. Like I said, ephemeral. For the most part, the majority of people occupy a small footprint in life, like an impression in sand which is washed away with the tide. I don’t expect the world will remember me a hundred years after I’m gone.
I went home to my garden after my walk and worked for a time in the lovely April air. I’m not in the least disturbed by these thoughts about aging or vanishing. Perhaps my beloved garden will be my legacy along with whatever happens through my children. Maybe one day, someone will be scrolling through this blog, decades from now. Mostly I want to make good use of my time, the time I have at this instant. Should I only read new books or should I go back to old ones that deserve one more look? I think the same thing about movies and television shows. Music, as well. What’s the right balance between staying current and allowing a little self-indulgent wallow in the past? The only thing I never question is the mysterious interior presence of Michael in me although his physical being is conspicuously absent. That sustenance simply is. Some days I change as quickly as those foot impressions in the sand overwhelmed by the latest tide. I could be around for a day or years to come. No one knows anything even though they try. Me neither. Although I’ll continue to try as well.