Writing’s mysterious. Something happens and it sends your mind to places long forgotten. Writing’s beautiful. You startle yourself with a luminous phrase. Writing’s frightening. A thing sends your mind to places you avoid. Something last week sent my mind to a time I dread and it has me rethinking how I travel this road called Life.
I was to speak at a complex where elderly people congregate. I was minutes from speaking when a tad too much coffee sent me to the Men’s Room. I began to do what men do when I heard whispers, loud whispers. A man was sitting in stall number one. All I could see were his white walking shoes and one of those HurryCanes standing upright by his feet. I never saw his face. Not once.
I don’t believe he could hear that well. He didn’t know I was in the room with him. His whispers were loud. “Oh Lord,” he prayed, “Just once let me sit next to someone without losing control of my bowels. Just once, Lord, help me, please.”
I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but, caught in a moment, I had no choice. TMI, I know. He continued to pray and in an odd amalgam of memory and empathy “Mr. Piano Man,” Billy Joel’s song popped into my head. “There’s an old man sitting next to me. He says, son can you play me a memory. I’m not really sure how it goes, but it’s sad and it’s sweet, and I knew it complete, when I wore a younger man’s clothes.”
How I wished this man had been wearing a younger man’s clothes. When he did wear a younger man’s clothes, I wonder if he ever thought this day would come. Or maybe some infirmity struck just of late. I debated writing this column. It seems like an invasion of privacy but the next night a friend casually said, “Tom, I’ve been thinking about killing myself.”
I tried to play it off, “Well, we all have these thoughts you know.”
His comment and the prayer from stall no. one reveal a truth. Once you reach mile markers approaching 80, Highway Life turns into the Road of Dread and a hitchhiker named Fear rides alongside you.
“Don’t fear the reaper” goes another song. Well, every time I walk into a convenience store with its ragtag humanity loitering there, I think, “Today’s the day I get shot.” When I’m driving down an interstate cast among speeding eighteen-wheelers, I think, “Today’s the day a wreck throws my obituary onto the page.”
But you want to know the truth? I don’t fear the reaper. I fear his henchmen, Dependence, Incontinence, Depression, Weakness, Despair, and Amnesia. I fear the passing of time that hastens the day my body’s betrayal arrives. Something will go haywire; it always does. As my Grandmother Walker approached her last few miles, on a summer day even, she would sit wrapped in a shawl next to a space heater and stare out the window. “Tommy, look at those horses out there.”
“Yes ma’am, they sure are pretty.”
There were no horses.
In the spring of 2003, a doctor at MUSC ushered our small family and cancer-stricken father into a room and prayed. Then he told my father there was nothing more they could do. Dad cried without making a sound. Tears streamed from his eyes, which had long lost that spark of life. Dad cried and made not one sound. Nothing.
A year earlier the surgeon’s blade had removed his larynx.
I’ve been traveling Highway Life a while now and I have seen fellow travelers fall by the wayside. Some died young as only the good can do. Outside of cancer, most succumbed to accidents, strokes, heart attacks, and, in one sad case, suicide. God bless them all.
I’ve experienced hundreds of sermons, dozens of funerals and graveside farewells, revivals, and many a memorial service. The whispered prayer from stall no. 1 was the most earnest, most impassioned prayer I’ve heard. Ever. Every ounce of this man’s soul went into it. I never saw his face but I will never forget him. And I thank him. He’s given me a new perspective on the route I should take onward. Way too many people live a life devoid of physical activity. They pay the price down the road.
We all have our demons. Dreading the embarrassment old age unleashes sitting next to a fellow human being might be the worst. The fellow praying in stall no. 1 renewed my resolve to take better care of the only thing I truly own. My body.