I keep encountering old people. As part of my job as a social worker, they come hobbling in, creaky and wrinkled, and settle in to share their tales of woe. Sometimes they carry smells, are grey and bifocaled, and fill their application forms with long lists of medications.
I often pitied these prehistoric specimens before an epiphany spelled the alarm: THESE ELDERS ARE MY PEERS! I MYSELF AM A CODGER OF OLDE!
As proof, this morning when I dropped my wife at the library, she handed me a pack of sugarless cinnamon gum and said, “Here. This will give you something to do while you wait.”
Playing Words with Friends recently, I played an A in front of a word already on the board. Excited and confident, I played ADROOL, as in, “There I was, watching C-SPAN, my head anodding and my chin all adrool.” I felt crushed when this seemingly common state of being was rejected.
My wife must have figured that if I chewed sugarless cinnamon gum while I parked outside, this would prevent my nodding off and soiling the car upholstery with drool. As it turned out, the little gum box was empty, so I then took her to mean that I could amuse myself by reading the ingredients of sugarless cinnamon gum. Meanwhile, she could peruse stacks of great literature, each of us according to our talents.
Hey, I may be dumb but at least I’m stupid.
My father just turned ninety and he now wears a bib when he comes to the table. His cranial synapses can get discombobulated, and he might try drinking a bottle of ketchup if you don’t intervene. Before the era of the bib, splotches of dried food would accumulate on his shirts and bathrobe. These telltale and crusty stains I dubbed “splog,” and they became locations of interest for dinner-table discussions. My wife once claimed she saw the Dalai Lama in a mustard stain. When Dad was living with us, we ran up quite the electric bill from the constant washing of his sploggy garments and sploggy lifestyle.
And now, I select which sweatshirt or sweater I wear by which of these possesses the least amount of splog. Drooling is not the least of the woes wrought by my advanced age. Like father like son, I suppose. I went to visit my long-lost brother last winter, and when he greeted me at the airport, dried remnants of navy bean soup adorned the front of his turtleneck. Like baldness, sploggishness runs in families.
Dad’s bib became a fixture at about the time he took a wrong turn. Sitting in his easy chair one evening, he announced officially, “When a man has to urinate, a man has to urinate.” With great exertion, he lifted from his chair, straddled his walker left and right, pointed it down down the hall, plodded forward in slow, tiny steps, and headed straight into the broom closet.
But judge not that my father has let go of life’s important lessons. During a recent hospital stay when yet again his diverticulosis erupted, Dad had this conversation with a nurse:
NURSE: How are we doing today, Ben?
DAD: I’m old! Old and decrepit!
DAD: Decrepit. With a T.
NURSE: Oh, okay. Well, lay back down on your bed.
DAD: It’s lie back down, my dear. The verb is to lie.
No one has ever taken offense at these corrections, because my father is so dang sweet. He so loves his fellow man. Dad may not remember how many children he has, but if, perchance, you visit him, and you recite the first few words of a Shakespearean sonnet, say Sonnet 29, he will take the cue and proceed without error and without pause:
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate.
And so on.
After I realized that I was older than many of the geezers I served, I took to spending long minutes gazing at my face in a close-up mirror. I had to agree: just when a guy starts to think he’s all grown up, the ol’ mortal coil takes a nosedive. It’s like falling asleep on a surfboard, only to awaken miles off shore, the tides of time pulling you outward. And as you try to paddle homeward, the great grasp of momentum only chuckles.
Acceptance can happen. Sometimes I chuckle when I pass by the broom closet. Now I rock in my father’s old easy chair and sometimes a gob of jelly will inevitably seep onto my stomach. I have taken to chewing gum, stick after flavorful stick, my favorite taste cinnamon. It prevents splog, and stops the head anodding, the chin all adrool. And while chomping away, I might recall an old song or poem, and how earlier that day I walked into a room with no clue as to why.
Tom Bohnhorst is a social worker and lives in Traverse City, Michigan. In 1973, he spent a harrowing night in a Turkish jail. He also has a blog called Poopiderum.