Woodside Story: The boogeyman of old age

Just when I proclaimed myself ‘ridiculously healthy,’ someone had other plans.


It probably wouldn’t matter to us if the only downside to elderliness was, well, to put it bluntly, looking crappy. We do endure that awful specter; crepey skin, gray hair standing in tufts on a pink skull, and bodies we’d rather encapsulate inside a stone sarcophagus than in a bathing suit.

But the worst part is a super-bad, even life-threatening health crisis. You all know what I’m talking about. You’ve observed friends and relatives falling into the swamps — the swamps called “Goodbye, Forever” — heart attacks, stage 1100 cancer, respiratory failure, organs on the fritz; in short, everything but the bubonic plague, thank the Lord for that.

My favorite saints of the Middle Ages — Francis of Assisi and Theresa of Avila — were desperately sick in their final seasons.

Now as for me, I’ve been thankful to be healthy. “Ridiculously healthy!” I’ve described it. Why is it ridiculous? Well, with all the oldies around me being not such goodies, what with their diabetes and tumors and creaky joints, like my beloved ex-husband Marty’s two hips that needed replacing, one of which got infected and landed him in rehab for months upon months! We all, unless we’re psychopaths, feel deep compassion for one another as we tumble into the disease troughs of antiquity. So for me to have joints free of arthritis, well, this was ridiculous, was it not?

A quick aside and health tip: I’ve long credited “ridiculous good health” to being a vegetarian. Yeah, meat-eating, including fish and chicken, means there’s dead flesh in your intestines, and the angels who look after our bodies shake their heads at this. This isn’t good for you in the long term. And I must add here that my family chortles when I recommend the vegetarian way of life. They’ll sneer when I neglect to fasten my seat belt, and they’ll say, “Oh, so vegetarians are never killed in the back seat of a car during traffic accidents?” “Never!” I’ll answer.

But moving on, this kind of gloating is called hubris, and hubris, as the ancient Greeks will tell you, leads to a downfall. Just look at Oedipus, who believed he’d never mistakenly kill his dad and hitch up with his mom.

So here’s my sad story: I was hubristic about my ridiculous good health and then, whammo! The gods in charge of old folks being too perky about their health sent me a doozy of a reckoning. A few weeks ago I ran an errand in Oak Bluffs to buy a gift certificate at one of my favorite shops and galleries, Craftworks on Circuit Avenue, owned by my dear friend Paula Catanese. Her funny and savvy son Scott, who manages the store, teased me about the dollars of the gift: $140. “That’s an odd amount,” he said. “Where did you come up with that figure?” Somehow $140 was in my brain. Maybe from a past life, when I bought a hut in the Negev desert for $140 plus change? In any event, no sooner had we conducted that bit of business when I felt wracked by dizziness. I draped my head on the counter and simultaneously felt a deluge of vital bodily fluids below. Dear Paula led me to the bathroom, where she knelt over me, cradling my shoulders. All around me I heard people urging a call to 911. “Not 911,” I mumbled but no one heard me.

And why not 911? Because, in my ridiculous good health, I thought I’d be jumping up any minute singing “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah!” and whistling for a ride home. Instead, some really nice guys shoving a stretcher lifted me into an ambulance. “I’ve never seen the inside of an ambulance,” I murmured, “Only on TV shows. Like ‘Law & Order.’”

At the hospital, where everyone, doctors and nurses alike, were so kind, a duo of nurses cleaned up the two gallons or so of blood I’d spewed from my insides. I told them, “This reminds me of Lady Macbeth’s line after their first killing: ‘Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?!’” I teased the nurses, “Bet a lot of patients use that line.” They looked at me and laughingly said, “You’re the first!”

The docs made me spend the night. I was diagnosed with diverticulitis. It’s when a pouch of blood forms in the intestines, and gets jostled by this and that until it ruptures. What do you do? You switch to a diet low in fiber, and I had to give up all sorts of stuff I love, like my usual fistful of cashews for breakfast. What’s wrong with cashews? Even after ample chewing, they have a consistency like sandpaper that rubs against your next pouch of blood.

Urrrgh! You, dear reader, don’t want to hear any more. I was discharged, but a few weeks of breathlessness descended on every activity, even walking into the next room or picking up my 20-pound doggy. My angel-baby son Charlie came out to care for me and to walk the pooch.

I’m stronger and not breathless, so I’d better buckle up that seat belt in the back seat. Nonetheless, I’m no longer ridiculously healthy, only ridiculous.

Welcome to old age, and its most pivotal rite of passage.