By Maal Sibulkin
As often happens in one’s elder years, for no visible or known cause, only from visible and painful symptoms, I was taken to the hospital’s emergency room with a knee suddenly swollen so badly that it looked like I had elephantitis. As I sat in the waiting room, nursing and nurturing my cane, lengthily awaiting my non-emergency turn with the E.R. doctor, three young men of late teens or early twenties sat opposite me waiting on their own medical mission.
One glanced at me and queried: “Hi, Pops, whatsa matta wi’ you?”
I observed these young, macho “pups,” concluding for an answer that my wait for the doctor would not be long enough to properly describe my endless list of ailments. So I responded: “Actually I have just one grab-bag that’s wrong with me -one dread disease. It is inherited, inevitable, contagious, and snails-pace terminal although only over decades of time.”
The young man’s eyebrows rose as he reacted: “Wow! What’s it called?”
I replied: “Eighty-itis.”
Perplexed, he frowned: “Eighty-its? Neva heerd uv that one. Whatzit do ta ya?”
I smiled at him: “The upside is that only lasts for one year. The downside is that following year you get ‘Eighty-one-its.'”
From sudden recognition he laughed, and his friends broke out in wide smiles. “So whatsa ‘hunnert-itis like?'” he wanted to know.
“Dunno,” I offered. “Be patient, and I’ll let you know.”
As the trio filed out to see the doctor, my new friend chirped: “Hang in there, Pops!”
“Keep punchin’!” they all chorused.
Like that “root’n-toot’n” movie-cowboy John Wayne who suddenly whips out his trusty six-gun always holstered at his side, spins the trigger on his finger and fills the air with “hot-lead ‘n smoke,” suddenly I whipped out my pen-‘n-pad, always holstered in my pocket, spun the light bulb inside my head and filled the pad with “red-hot ink.” Inspired by my youthful encounter, my rousing essay, “80-itis: That dreaded disease, an octogenarian’s creed,” is the result.
That Dreaded Disease
Many years ago, newspapers printed a daily two-box cartoon, by Jimmy Hatlo, called: “They’ll Do It Every Tim” – a humorous commentary on human nature. Fondly I recall one of those cartoons, perhaps of some 50 years ago, which was somewhat on the subject of “Eighty-itis.”
The first box portrays a family driving down Main Street in their old open Model-T-like roadster. As the old “fliver” chugs along, it sings a merry “Chugga-chugga-chugga, bam! Bam! Pow! Kapow!” while steam sizzles from the radiator fenders vibrate and the whole “Tin-Lizzie” shakes as nuts and bolts come flying off in all directions.
Dad sits behind the wheel and drives, all carefree smiles. Mother sits at Dad’s side, all carefree smiles. Junior slouches in the open back seat with his arms behind his neck and feet propped up in front of him, all carefree smiles. Sis leans over the car’s edge waving her arms, all carefree smiles. Fido’s paws are draped over the side, his snout and tongue in the wind, all carefree smiles.
Alas, but I guess “Ole Tin-Lizzie” finally came down with eighty-itis, because the second cartoon box shows the same family riding down the same Main Street in their spic-‘n-span, shiny brand-new car, with its spic-‘n-span, shiny brand-new motor purrrrrring like a pussy-cat. Suddenly, the spic-‘n-span, shiny brand-new car emits a faint “pinggggg.”
Dad clutches the wheel and leans forward, perplexed and worried. “What was that?!” he gasps, “the transmission?” Mother leans forward, her brow furrowed: “Was it the steering box?” Junior leaps forward, clutching the seat in front, glowering, listening intently: “I think the cylinder is sticking!” Sis bolts forward, clasping her hands, sniffling in distress: “Are we gonna break down in the middle of our ride?” Fido bares his teeth, fur rises, tail stiffens. The family atmosphere is thick with worry.
To me the first cartoon box represents being young, the potential for feeling “all carefree smiles” from the instinctive confidence that everything that breaks can be fixed, from a truth-defying sense of immortality with neither preparation for, nor acknowledgment of, that time when “bam, bam!, pow!, kapow!” becomes real, doubtful, critical and frightening to our lives.
The second cartoon box suggest the oncoming of old, which assaults one’s spirit with anxiety, resentment, a host of attending negativity in nervous wistfulness, and – worse than a failing body – failing hope.
Septuagenarians and octogenarians all eventually come down with “That Dread Disease: Eighty-itis” as their bodies start “bam-pow-ka-powing,” sizzling off steam, vibrating and shaking, and shedding nuts-and-bolts in one doctor’s office or another from ailments so numerous that when one tries to count them on an electronic calculator, the machine spits out: “Reject – Reject – Overload – Reject!”
At that point we seniors have two choices: we can cry, or we can laugh. As those “pings” multiply, as they expand into a “screech” which we confront by striving to utilize the best which medical science offers, we can respond by weeping bitter tears over our entire “sheebang” of ills, raise steam from resentment, moan with regret at lifetime failures now beyond reversal or repair, shake and rattle with fear, and try preemptively to negotiate a deal with God. Or… we can choose to recognize and acknowledge God’s final gift to us as we are approaching our earthly departure – the gift of Divine laughter.
We can choose to wave aside our calculator-breaking ailments, decide that during our long lives we have “been there – done that” been everywhere we were supposed to go, done everything we were supposed to do. We can embrace with laughter our past roles in human folly and our humane mistakes. Even as we cope with our countless dropping of “nuts and bolts,” swallow down Metamusil and baby aspirin, and toss about like chips on the foaming waves of surgery, the possibility is there that we respond to our entire “bouquet of eighty-itis” with laughter.
Even as the spector of incontinence threatens us by evidence of leaks and droppings, we can place ourselves before the mirror and look at our failing bodies which have lost all their youthful luster, smile at the invisible Grim Reaper, sweep a hand at our reflections like politicians do at rallies and philanthropists pose at “do-gooder” testimonials, like a brand new CEO does at a board meeting and proclaim: “Take it all!” – every muscle, every organ, every bone, vein, fiber, hair, egg, sperm, gene, chromosome, DNA, cell – every blessed dream. Take them as you will!
But so long as I breathe, even with the proverbial 10-foot pole you cannot touch my robust, clean-hearted, non-conforming, freely-questing, deadly-honest, deadly-earnest, God-worshiping, not death-defying but life-defying, sexually adoring, child-propagating, humanity-serving, everlastingly-dreaming teen-age spirit!
Isn’t life a constant paradox? Needing an electric push-button to propel me up from my bed, and needing both hands to lift me from a chair, and taking one step at a time while leaning on a cane and hanging onto a railing to handle stairs, I for one, then defiantly head out with friends and tramp the woods by-the-mile, to pull fresh air into my gasping lungs, and restore God into my spirit.
I pledge that when the time shall come that I no longer can hike, I shall do it all in a wheelchair just the same! May we all comfort the sadness, which at times wells deep within our hearts, and pave our shortening and narrowing road ahead with a little action and with soft and loving laughter.