Our Stories: Am I Old-Old?

It certainly isn’t because I think my story is more painful or significant than yours. Not at all. I write about this because perhaps you will find something that resonates with you, or you might laugh and together we can be encouraged by the mercy and goodness of God. Read on and see. Or not.

Some years ago, I read a fascinating book by Mary Pipher titled Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of our Elders. She wrote about the stages of growing older and included interviews with many older people. She maintains that “until people lose their health, they are in the young-old category. Until people are ill, many keep their old routines and add some new ones.” However, poor health changes everything. “When health falls apart, generally in the mid-seventies or later, the young-old move into the old-old stage.”

Our culture has shifted more and more toward youth being the only stage of life worth living. It seems like everywhere I look I am confronted with promises to remain young if only I eat right, exercise right, and drive the right off-road vehicle. This can make accepting our inevitable decline a bit more difficult to accept. I wasn’t even sure when middle age ended, until one evening when Denis and I went out for dinner. We had reserved a table for 5pm. As we were seated, I discovered I could actually hear what the wait staff was saying about the specials. Then I looked around. Alarmed, I asked Denis, “WHO are all these OLD people?” There were gray-haired ladies wearing lipstick and pearls and bald men in button-up sweaters quietly drinking martinis. No young couples or families in sight.

It was us. Me. Looking for a quiet dinner before the rush and enjoying half-price drinks at Happy Hour.

There were other hints that I was moving into the young-old stage. Around home it took the form of a certain person on a mission casting away all my throw rugs. They are a “tripping hazard for old people” I was told. But they are beautiful, I insisted. Next came the question: “So, how many times have you fallen this year?” (Everyone seemed to be asking me that, doctor, nurse, daughter, everyone.) Well, okay. I don’t fall that much. I did pitch down the deck steps carrying a basket of wet laundry once. But that’s all I could remember. A Voice from the background called, and that’s another problem, your memory! “What about the time you slipped on ice and your legs went under the car in about four inches of water?” That could have happened to anyone, I say.

There was another signal. Sometimes I use a cane. I don’t feel embarrassed about it. I have rheumatoid arthritis and sometimes a flare means I need a little extra help. But when I saw a bent gray-haired grandma slowly taking the church steps one at a time with her brown cane. “Old,” I thought. Elderly. That’s me in ten years, surely not now.

According to Pipher, after young-old comes the old-old stage. This last stage often begins with some physical crisis. A debilitating fall. An accident. An illness. Suddenly life shifts and your independence begins to slip away. It may have arrived for me not long ago. I didn’t think it would bother me to say this to you right now. Even though I’ve tried to be honest about aging, this admission leaves me with a kind of sadness. Tears somewhere in the area of my heart need to be wiped. Perhaps there is still time for a few more years of young-old before old-old hits? If I can fully recover from my current illness?

As I write this, I am day 43 into recovering from a rare form of pneumonia. When I heard the doctor say “necrotizing pneumonia,” I sat straight up. Necrotizing sounded like a very bad word. According to Sciencedirect.com, necrotizing pneumonia (Followed by a lot of technical terms I didn’t understand.) is a consequence of severe inflammation. It was enough to learn that, as of today, part of my left lung is dead.

Day 1. I’ll say it began on day 1 when everything seemed normal, and I was happily helping serve a new-comers supper for our church. I had made chocolate surprise cupcakes for the desert.

Day 2. The following morning, I got up as usual to drink my cup of coffee before breakfast. Sitting in my favorite chair I began to shake and couldn’t hold the cup without sloshing hot coffee in my lap. I was so cold my teeth were clacking. Nothing warmed me up. I sat all day wrapped in blankets and freezing. Later I learned these shakes are called “rigors” and can be a symptom of a serious bacterial infection.

Day 3. Early the next morning we were at the ER where it was unusually quiet. I don’t remember much, only that I was being admitted to the hospital. I was spiking a fever and both Denis and Anita were very worried; they report I had periods of delirium which I don’t remember and wonder if they had just made this up to mess with me.

When a nurse came in the room with an IV stand and a handful of bags, she asked my name and I am told I began saying “It’s . . . it’s . . . it’s,” as if I couldn’t remember. Finally, she asked “Honey, what is your birth date?” I looked around the room as if wanting help and eventually suggested, “Like, how about 12-17-1927?”

Close. Right month, two days off and the year 1927 would make me 104.

Days 4-15 Hospital. The next days were a blur as pulmonologists and an infectious disease doctor took over my life and, in fact, saved it. They discovered I had a bacterial infection in my lung cavity and pneumonia in the lungs. I had heard of antibiotic resistant bacteria that needed the biggest guns to kill them and now those antibiotics were hanging from bags, pumping their fiery liquid into my veins. The next procedure was draining my lung cavity of fluid which had grown a dreaded cocktail of bacteria in the lab. Next a tube was pushed through my chest wall so “infection clot busters” could be delivered twice a day.

There was nothing about this experience that made me feel like I was on a spiritual growth journey with God by my side. I could not think “spiritual thoughts” or even pray except for the most simple prayer. With my jaws tightly gripped and my eyes squeezed shut all I could do was ask “Please, God, help me endure this procedure again.” The pain from moving, having injections through the tube, getting to the bathroom with all my friends on wheels, and techs coming through the door cheerfully announcing “Labs!” was torture.

The most difficult news for Denis was hearing that if the chest tube procedure didn’t work there was only one other option—surgery. Which might not work. After that, nothing more to be done.

Throughout all the days in the hospital several things deeply etched my heart and gave a comfort I couldn’t even process until later. In retrospect it has brought tears.

There was Denis steadily sitting bedside and bringing warm blankets. Anita’s cool hand on my forehead and her attention to clean underwear.

Our daughter Sember bending over, pushing my hair back “I’ve brought you some books.”

Family bringing food I thought I wanted but could only eat two bites.

My sister visiting and planning meals for when I got home.

Our daughter, Marsena lives far away and longed to be with us but was unable to visit. She was the one who spoke with our church to set up a meal train. This was the first time I’ve experienced such a wonderful gift and nearly every other day for three weeks after I got home folks brought us dinner.

While I was in the hospital, I met staff so kind I wanted to help them by suggesting how some things could be done at the same time to save them time and steps. That’s when the Voice from the background ordered me to “Stop being a #2, you’re in the hospital, for heaven’s sake! Quit trying to help.” (The Enneagram defines the #2 person as the nurturer, the helper.)

One of the nursing assistants was so gentle and helpful, I offered to marry him and move to Ethiopia to help him take care of his only surviving relative. Denis was there when I said this. I wasn’t trying to be secretive about it. The nurse good naturedly laughed and said, “We’ll see about that.”

During my stay there was a moment of laughter and pure delight when I received a surprise visit from dear friends from Scottsdale. When Larry, who’s a doctor at Mayo walked into my room, his first remark, in the monotone I love, was: “In my professional opinion, (pause for drama) you look terrible.”

At home in the aftermath, a surprise visit from son Jerem did my soul so much good. Each morning, he was with us he and I were up before the others and he made breakfast for me. A piece of toast and a scrambled egg with cheese and green chili just as I liked.

I’ve been home now for a while. I wrote this on Day 43 of recovery. When I complained to my primary care doctor about how long this was taking, he leaned in my face and said, “Patience! Patience! You aren’t 17 years old anymore and they don’t shove a tube in your chest for a mere cold.”

This experience of days in the young-old or old-old stage, or whatever it is, has left me thankful for the love and prayers of my dear friends and family. I’m thankful for the small ordinary things that have made the long process of healing (which is not over) not only bearable, but sometimes even joyful. I’m thankful to God for his faithfulness and mercy through all our doubts and trials.

* Fact: There is an over 45% mortality rate for necrotizing pneumonia. (Sciencedirect.com) It now looks like I might have some days left to harass my friends, admire my chickens, and bake a pie now and then. Being Old-Old might not be so bad. Another CT scan is scheduled in a few months, which we are praying will provide an all-clear. Thanks be to God.

Photo credit: Denis’ iPhone, taken by whoever was visiting at the moment.