By Kenneth Ring
Not to be born at all
Is best, far best that can befall,
Next best, when born, with least delay
To trace the backward way.
For when youth passes with its giddy train,
Troubles on troubles follow, toils on toils,
Pain, pain forever pain;
And none escapes life's coils.
And of course it has not only been the pandemic that has brought so much sorrow to us. Just to focus on the U.S., all of us remember the wave of protests that followed the shocking death of George Floyd and other Black persons killed by wanton police cruelty as the Black Lives Matter movement brought home the longstanding stink of racism that has affected and infected our country since before we were a nation. This was followed by a fractious and tumultuous election campaign that went on for months, and once the election was over, it wasn’t. It was during this time that then President Trump continued his delusional claim that he had actually won (by "a lot," he said) and went on to stoke the flames of insurrection among his more rabid followers that led to their assault and invasion of our capital on January 6th of this year. And these are just a few of the lowlights that made this past year one of almost ceaseless woe, worry and sporadic mayhem and unchecked violence. An annus horribilis, if ever there were one.
Compared to the traumas of this past year, my own sufferings hardly deserve mentioning, though as you can anticipate, that won’t stop me from disclosing some of them to you. Like many, I had a tough year, though my difficulties weren’t due to COVID as such, but to the terminal disease with which I am afflicted – aging. It will kill me in the end, but in the meantime it is content to inflict Jobbian indignities to a body that has clearly outlined its expiration date. At 85, I have reached the stage of life where my telomeres are breaking off and my body is breaking down. At night, I imagine I can hear it creaking, and in the morning, I could sometimes swear that rigor mortis must have already begun. In any case, I am in a daily battle with my enemy, decrepitude.
I realize that an old man’s complaints about his bodily infirmities are as trite as they are tedious. After all, everything that lives will suffer eventually; it’s just my turn now. So what? Big deal….
Still, if you’ll indulge me for a paragraph or two, you should know that I’ve had a severe case of spinal stenosis for several years now, so that I can barely walk down my block and back, and live like a virtual shut-in, shuffling around my house like a zombie at times. I have a torn right rotator cuff, too, that makes it difficult to lift my right arm. Dressing myself in the morning can sometimes take twenty minutes or more. In August, after I had done a lot of typing, I developed a cervical problem on my right shoulder that became progressively worse and before long resulted in severe pain. That went on for four months during which I could no longer write or even read books, either by hand or on my computer. All my professional work and almost all of my e-mail contact had to be shut down. During those months, I felt I had come to the end of the line as I was no longer able to work and write. At night, the pain was often so intense, I wished I could die. I knew I would not take my own life; I just wish it would be taken from me. Decrepitude I could handle; despair was harder.
I have no talent as a poet; I am not even a lowly poetaster. All I can do is write doggerel, and since my life in those dark days was going to the dogs, anyway, I banged out the following one morning:
On Growing Old
It is a misfortune to grow old
You will learn that soon enough
Eventually if not soon
Unless you are one of the lucky ones
And get to leave before your time
It is a myth that with age comes wisdom
Quite the contrary, my friend
With age, as you will see, comes decay
The body and its parts begin to falter
And then, one by one, begin to fail
And the mind, too, will start to shred
Its rich storehouse of memories
What gives you a sense of your identity
Begins to unravel and fall apart
Forgetfulness instead will be your lot
But you remember the days when you
Could run and hike with lively tread
Those days, too, are gone. Instead
You go from striding to walking, and then
To sauntering, shuffling until you can only just sit
You recall the days, or, rather, the nights
When you could sleep straight through
And dream of siren women and foolish things
But now you piss the nights away, spending
More time in the bathroom than in bed
And what of all those romances past that
Kept your loins aflame with desire
They, too, have begun to fade from view
And the faces of your lovers likewise dim
Even their names you can’t quite recall
You have lived beyond your expiration date
But your body has failed to expire
So you remain immured inside your
Body’s fortress, a prisoner of its
Capricious will, waiting for release
Yet each day brings you closer to death
Which means a time without a future
But each day you must live lashes you
To that unwanted future – when will it end?
Like the Sphinx, it remains stonily silent
So you wait, powerless to control your fate
Though that doesn’t mean that
You don’t think about how to end it
The nights are long, but the stars still shine
And people love you – you live for them
Eventually, I found some relief from an epidural injection, but it wasn’t until I had a second one in January that was a special targeted epidural that I was finally free of shoulder pain and could write again. I’m "in remission" now since I was told that, with luck, I could expect it to last about three months. I could then have another injection, but because of having to get vaccinated, that will have to be postponed. So I can write without (much) pain now, but who knows for how long? And even tonight, I can feel some discomfort. Nevertheless, I’m grateful beyond words to have my life, such as it is, back now.
However – and this is the last thing in my litany of woes – two days after my second epidural, I had a sudden series of diarrhea episodes, followed by constipation, and back and forth it has gone, with stomach distention and lots of crap (literally) you don’t want to know about. During this time, I have lost seven pounds and have tried everything to get it under control. It’s been six weeks now, and the end is not in sight. Oh well, what the effing hell – it’s always something! You have to laugh.
I guess I could say that I’ve lost everything but my hair and my sense of humor, and I hope to hold onto both until the end. And these days, I am actually feeling more cheerful than I have in a long time. This may have been a grim, and indeed, a ghastly year, but we must all find ways not to succumb to the gnawing fear that the COVID cloud will never lift. It will, and most of us to live to see that day. Meanwhile, I recommend that we pursue the kind of distractions that give us pleasure.Roger Federer. But you may know that not only has this year been a dismal one for us sports fans, especially for those of us for whom life has become a spectator sport, yet it has been worse for Federer himself. He has not played in a year owing to two knee surgeries, and at 39 his career is pretty much history. Hard as this year has been for me personally, to live without being able to watch Federer play was a thought that I could hardly bear to contemplate.
Still, I have found that there is still pleasure to be had by watching the Australian Open this month, even without Federer. Maybe Naomi Osaka, who just won her fourth grand slam title, will be become my new tennis raison d’etre. Maybe there’s tennis life post-Federer after all.
I’m still writing doggerel about the trials of aging, but now with a lighter touch. I try not to take myself too seriously. I enjoy what I can, and the hell with the rest. I’m lucky to be here, and my body ain’t me, is it?
When You’re Old
And nothing works
When you wake
You only ache
As for sleep
There’s nothing deep
Too many bathroom trips
Just to see how your penis drips
And when you dream
You hear Munch’s scream
At night, you feel the chills
By day, you try to avoid more spills
Even when you go to talk
What comes out is just a squawk
Your hearing is going, too
Your vision? Think Mr. Magoo
You are no longer bold
Just do as you’re told
And that, my friends,
Is what it’s like
When you grow old!
Finally, harking back to Sophocles’ lament about the sorrows of aging, the late George Carlin had a brilliant solution, which I think someone should bring to the attention of our Creator. Let George have the last word:
I want to live life backward
You start out dead and get that out of the way
Then you wake up in a nursing home feeling better every day
Then you get kicked out for being too healthy
Enjoy your retirement and collect your pension
Then when you start your work, you get a gold watch on the first day
You work for 40 years until you are too young to work
You get ready for high school: drink alcohol, party, and you are generally promiscuous
Then you go to primary school, you become a kid, you play, and you have no responsibilities
Then you become a baby, and then...
You finish off as an orgasm.
I rest my case.