Tag Archives: aging

Mother Wolf Transitions

My mother’s official 1959 wedding portrait

My mother told me that one day in the early 1960s, she was strolling past a row of file cabinets at the insurance company in downtown Dallas where she worked at the time, when a man who had a history of playing pranks on his coworkers suddenly leaped out and popped her bra strap.  At a time when people could normally get away with such shenanigans in the workplace, my mother said she didn’t think twice once she saw the smirk on the young man’s face…and smacked him across his face, sending his glasses to the floor.  She cursed at him – something that most people, especially women could NOT get away with in those days – and merely walked away.  Trying to play the victim, she said he complained to his manager who subsequently called her into his office.  She reiterated the entire scenario, which generally would be a true case of he-said-she-said.  But she had a supporter.  Another man had witnessed the incident and confirmed her version.  The bra popper was merely reprimanded verbally, and my mother was forced to drop the incident.

Not until years later did she reveal that to my father who surely would have stormed into the office and cracked a few heads of the all-male management.  In fact, she told me she never told my father most of the stuff that happened to her at work – the ongoing and pervasive sexual harassment she endured in the old days – because she feared his retribution upon her male colleagues.  But really didn’t need to do that; she could fend for herself.

My mother, Maria Guadalupe De La Garza, passed away last Monday, June 22, at the age of 87.  She had endured a lengthy battle with dementia and the effects of a stroke she suffered last January, which almost completely rendered her left side immobile.  After a lengthy stay in a rehabilitation center, I had to bring her home in May; whereupon she entered home hospice care.  That, in and of itself, was an ordeal.

But I knew her time was coming to an end.

My mother had a difficult start in life.  Her mother, Esperanza, was seven months pregnant with her, when her parents traveled to Taxco, a town just outside of México City, to attend some kind of family gathering in December 1932.  While there, Esperanza suddenly went into labor.  My mother barely weighed 2 pounds at birth; she was so small they carried her home in a shoe box and used her father’s handkerchiefs for diapers.  She was born on December 12, which to Latino Roman Catholics is Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe (Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe).  Thus, her parents named her Guadalupe.  Knowing that she had slim chance of survival – like most babies born prematurely in the 1930s – a local priest baptized her and gave her last rites in the same ceremony.

But she did survive – and fought various battles throughout her life with that inborn sense of determination and perseverance.  I still believe the unique mix of German and Mexican extraction only accentuated her unbridled individualism.

Esperanza died in México City on Christmas Day 1940, just 11 months after giving birth to her only son, William.  They had wanted to name him after his father, Clarence, but no one could a Spanish language version of that name.  Esperanza’s mother, Felicitas Basurto, stepped in to help Clarence raise his 4 children.  Felicitas had lived in the United States for a short while and worked for a U.S. Navy admiral as a governess to his 2 children.  She had actually taught herself English.  Felicitas returned to México in the summer of 1940, as Esperanza’s health began to fail.  She was there when her daughter succumbed to an abdominal infection.

In the September of 1943, Clarence moved his children and mother-in-law to Dallas where he’d found a job working an auto plant.  He wanted to return to his native Michigan, but he spotted an ad for the job in Dallas.

It was a rough transition for my mother and her 3 siblings.  None of them could speak English.  Many strangers thought my mother and her older sister, Margo, were Americans because of girls’ fair coloring.  But their maternal grandmother helped guide them into their new lives.

My mother met my father, George, in 1957, and they married two years later.  I’m their only child.

My mother’s strong personality made her almost fearless.  At some a gathering in the early 1950s, a nun got angry with my Uncle William for some unknown reason and called him a “spic”.  My mother was nearby and slapped the nun across her face.  That got her into trouble with the church and her father and grandmother.  Shortly before my parents wed, a priest told my mother that he hoped she’d do the “godly thing” and have lots of children.  My mother said she didn’t want many children, but the priest insisted; telling her it was her duty as a married woman.  She then agreed – and told the old man she’d bring all those children back to him so he could help her raise them.

Her sharp criticism of some people – especially other women – was boundless.  She called Paula Jones – the woman who accused Bill Clinton of exposing himself to her – a “dumb broad” because Jones apparently believed that she really was going for a job interview at his hotel room at 10:00 at night.  In May of 2004, my father’s second oldest sister, Teresa, died of cancer.  At the rosary, we spoke briefly with the husband of one of my cousins.  He was a police officer and mentioned that he was part of the security detail for former First Lady Barbara Bush when she came to Dallas and had to carry his gun.

“Why did you need to carry your gun?” my mother inquired.  “I mean, who wants a piece of that old hag?”

I burst out into laughter, as my cousin’s husband tried to keep his eyeballs from falling out of their sockets.

She called another former First Lady, Nancy Reagan, a “screaming banshee”; said she didn’t realize how fat Oprah Winfrey was until she saw her in jeans, when the talk show maven visited Dallas; and denounced Monica Lewinsky (the woman who had a sexual tryst with Bill Clinton in 1996) as a “cheap-ass whore”.

My mother and me, Christmas Eve 1965

My mother first started showing signs of dementia more than a decade ago.  Recipes for the simplest things sometimes eluded her.  My father and I finally got her to start seeing a neurologist in 2011.  In the four years since my father died, she occasionally referred to me as her brother, William.  A few times I had to call the paramedics to help me deal with her increasingly erratic behavior.  Their sudden presence always managed to calm her down.  I believe it’s because they were all men, and my mother was partial to men.

At the end of this past January, she suffered a mild stroke.  I didn’t realize it at first, but noticed she couldn’t get up out of bed.  I had her transported to a local hospital where an MRI discovered bleeding on the brain, which had already begun to heal.  It had paralyzed her entire left side.

I had to make the difficult decision of admitting her to a rehabilitation center to help her recover.  I found one nearby, but I developed a sense of dread the night the hospital transported her to the facility.  I felt like I was abandoning her.  I had promised my father many years ago that, if she should die first, I’d do everything I could take care of her.  And, of course, he died first.

The rehab center turned out to be incredible.  Physical therapists helped her regain mobility in her left arm and even her left leg.  I brought her back home at the end of March, as the COVID-19 calamity was unfolding.  I’d reports of residents at similar facilities contracting the novel coronavirus and even dying.

I contracted a health care agency to help me care for her.  But, after a week, things didn’t turn out well.  She became increasingly hostile and combative.  She also developed a urinary tract infection, but I thought she was experiencing another stroke.  After one night at the hospital, I had her readmitted to the rehab center.  Unfortunately, health care in the United States is still very much an actual business.  Her Medicare benefits were exhausted, and the facility had to discharge her in May.  I wrote about this in an essay a few weeks ago.

After returning home again, she entered a home hospice care program with same health agency.  They were quite phenomenal in helping me.  I couldn’t depend too much on relatives, friends or neighbors.  But her health continued to decline.  I had told a long-time family friend who lives nearby – a woman who’s known my mother for close to 50 years – that I didn’t feel my mother would make it to the end of summer.  Our friend was shocked, but when she came over to visit on the 18th, she realized I was probably right.  My mother had grown incoherent; she didn’t seem to recognize anyone, even me; and would often lie in bed staring at the ceiling or a wall and asking for her sister, Margo.  Margo had died of cancer in June 1989.

It’s incredibly frustrating and sad to watch someone who raised me descend into the depths of cognitive bewilderment.  The once vibrant, strong-minded woman I’d known my entire life had reverted to a child-like state of mind.  Now I know why dementia is often called “the long goodbye”.  You see your loved one disintegrate before you, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about.

In the few weeks preceding her death, I often felt we weren’t alone in the house.  I had prayed to my Aunt Margo to come get my mother, and I actually began to sense it was her moving about.  I also began to see shadows of a small animal trotting down the hall or the sound of tiny footsteps.  I realized immediately the figure was my dog, Wolfgang, who died in October 2016; just less than four months after my father.  In many cultures, animals, birds, and butterflies are often seen as either an omen of death or a conduit between our world and whatever other world might exist.  Both my parents absolutely loved that little dog of mine.  He actually became our dog.  Since I never married and had children, Wolfgang became their pseudo-grandson.  I even mentioned Wolfgang as a “canine grandson” in my father’s obituary.  On just a handful of occasions, though, I actually did spot Wolfgang – but only for a second or two.  I needed no further reassurance that my mother’s time here was coming to a close.

There’s no easy way to say goodbye to a loved one.  As a friend told me, that person can live a thousand years, but their demise is still painful.  I’m at peace, though, with what happened.  I’m glad I could get her back home to die.  She and my father had worked very hard to get and to keep this house.  We’ve been here almost 50 years.  And I couldn’t let her die anywhere else.

Now, I move forward.  Goodnight, mother.

Alzheimer’s Foundation of America

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Aged Out

“I hope I die before I get old.”

– “My Generation”, The Who, © 1965

I’ve thought about this scenario: I’m home alone at age 80-something and I have a stroke or some kind of cardiac event.  I can’t get to a phone and I don’t have one of those Life Alert devices.  As a staunchly independent, childless 50-something with few friends, that thought has crossed my mind on more than a few occasions in recent years.  It became even more glaringly realistic this past January, when I told my mother she needed to take a shower.  I realized she had urinated on her bed; a simple of case having fallen asleep and – given her age, I thought – wasn’t able to make it to the bathroom in time.

“I’ll change the sheets,” I told her, before retreating into the hall.  A moment later I saw she was flailing her right arm and leg.  “What’s wrong?” I asked.  “You need to get up and take a shower.”  But then it became clear.

She’d had a stroke.

It apparently had been a brief event and was already starting to heal by the time she’d arrived at the hospital.  But her left side was mostly paralyzed.  I sat beside her in the emergency room, as she gazed blankly into a flickering light panel, and thought, ‘Now what?’

Years ago, when her mental health started to wane, someone asked why I didn’t place her in a “home.”  “She has a home,” I replied.  “It’s the one she’s in now.”

But the now had changed.  And I was forced to contemplate the unthinkable: putting one of my parents into a “home” – whatever the hell that’s supposed to entail.

I had promised my father that I would do everything to ensure he didn’t pass away in a hospital; ensconced in a strange bed with tubes wrapped around him, as if he was a hostage.  And I was able to help him achieve his desire.

But this situation is different – and far more complicated.  After her hospital stay, I had to place my mother into a rehabilitation center.  I found one nearby and was able to tour the facility a few days before she arrived.  It’s an older building that looked like it hadn’t received a fresh paint job in about four presidential administrations.  On that Friday evening I accompanied her to the place, I felt as if I’d swallowed a tree branch – and it was now stuck.  The center looked even more dismal than when I’d first entered.  And that night, as my mother lay in bed, glancing around the room – her left arm and leg still mostly inert – my heart filled with trepidation.  I couldn’t stay that night, so after more than an hour – assuring her things would be alright and consulting with the amiable staff – I departed.  I almost felt like I’d abandoned my mother into a pit of despair.  And, even worse, I’d violated a solemn vow I’d made to my father more than a decade ago: if he should pass away first, I’d take care of my mother.

Looks, indeed, can be deceiving.  While the rehab center was an aged structure, the staff was incredible.  I did have a good feeling from the start, though, when I first spoke with one of their representatives.  But it didn’t take long for me to realize I’d made a great choice.

I brought my mother home in March, as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the nation.  The startling number of coronavirus deaths in similar facilities alarmed me.  The center had banned visitors a few days earlier, but I had to get her out of there.  As good as the place had been for her, I didn’t she feel she was safe.  And I knew I could care for her just as well as the rehab center and get her back to some semblance of her former self.  I should know by now that far-reaching plans always look great on paper or in dreams.

After only a week, I had to return her to the rehab center.  Her health had deteriorated in that short period.  But, once back at the facility, she improved.  She’d regained some movement on her left side and was alert.  She still didn’t recall what had happened.

But then, matters became even more complex – and aggravatingly unsettling.  My mother’s lengthy stay at the rehab facility had exhausted her Medicare benefits.  They paid 100% for 21 days, when they lowered the rate to 80%.  My mother – and I – was obliged to pay the remainder.  But she didn’t qualify for a supplemental insurance policy – even through Medicare.  Or the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The requisites for either make the Harvard Law School entrance exam look like a daycare application.

Medicaid was our last option.  Completing the application for that was tantamount to completing one to be a Central Intelligence Agency case officer.  And my mother wasn’t approved.  With her Social Security and two pensions, she earns too much per month; just a “few dollars” too much, the rehab center associate helping navigate the morass informed me.

And what, I inquired privately in my angry cogitations, qualifies as a “few dollars” too much?  I researched a handful of other available and plausible alternatives – enough to fill a tea cup – and could find nothing viable.  Absolutely nothing.  For my mother even to begin to qualify for some semblance of Medicaid coverage to help with her health care expenses, she’d have to cede all of her assets, including this house – the house she and my father worked hard to get and to keep; give it all up to an omnipotent entity that designed the very system to which my parents (and millions of others) annually pay homage and taxes.

And she earns a “few dollars” too much.

By the end of April, the rehab center – the place that had proved life-saving and life-changing – had reached its financial breaking point with us.  They had to let her go.  They had no choice, they told me – and therefore, neither did we.

Fortunately, Medicare does pay for extended hospice care here at the house.  Representatives with the agency I selected have been incredible – even angelic – in their commitment and service.  They’re as concerned with me, also, as my mother.

Still, I seethe at the thought of the financial fiasco in which we’ve now been placed.  We’re in debt to the rehab facility now, as well as to a slew of doctors and the hospital.  My mother is just one of literally millions of Americans in similar straits.  At current rates, the crisis will only deepen nationwide.  The number of Americans aged 65 and older is expected to almost double from 52 million in 2018 to 95 million in 2060; rising from 16% to 23%of the population.

A half-century ago, programs like Medicare and Medicaid were designed to assist the elderly and poor with health care needs.  They’re not just altruistic; they’re vital.  As with the Social Security system a generation earlier, Medicare and Medicaid provided necessary safety nets for many Americans.  The nation had matured into a contemporary society where even the most vulnerable of citizens were not left to fend for themselves.

As usual, social conservatives scoffed at the notion.  Just like with the post-World War II GI Bill, they denounced such aspirations as welfare and socialized medicine.  These were the same fools who demanded people swear allegiance to the United States, be willing to sacrifice their lives to the Constitution, abide by established laws, and blindly pay money to ensure a safe democracy for all.  They still do.  Yet, when people earn a “few dollars” too much…they shrug their shoulders and change the subject to American exceptionalism.

My mother began working for an insurance company in downtown Dallas in the fall of 1952 at the age of 19 and retired from an insurance company in February of 2003 at age 70.  With the exception of taking off 15 months for being pregnant with and caring for me – at a time when maternity leave was more of a concept – she worked for half a century.  Fifty years.  And, as her physical and mental health decline from years of just being alive…she earns a “few dollars” too much.

“Age is just mind over matter,” my father once told me.  “If you don’t mind, who gives a shit?!”

People have told me that, for being a good person, I deserve a “big reward.”  And I’ve also told some they deserve a special place in the “Great Beyond” just for being themselves.  As genuine and thoughtful as those words are, does anyone have to wait until life in some other realm to be appreciated for their actions?  Is it truly necessary to wait until we’re dead to receive the respect we’re due in life?

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Hormone It

Over the past couple of years male friends of mine have openly and shamelessly lamented the various travails suddenly burdening their aging lives.  Some have actually announced they’re experiencing hot flashes!  Seriously?!  Hot flashes?!  In the olden days (c. 1970s and 80s) I often heard my mother and other women bemoaning the onset of this dreaded mid-life scourge.  Since I only heard women complaining, I thought we men were safe and had to deal with other traumas; such as our eyebrows growing together and more spontaneous urination incidents instead of spontaneous erections.

Alas, it seems the much-loathed hot flash has zoonotically migrated into the Y-chromosome crowd.  I knew women shouldn’t have been allowed to vote and wear slacks!

While I’ve attributed recent cranial temperature spikes to allergies and Texas’ perennial schizophrenic weather (which might explain some Texans to the rest of the civilized world), I don’t feel I’m experiencing hot flashes.  I prefer to call them “hormonal readjustments”.  They’re similar to gray hairs; they’re not gray hairs, people!  They’re stress highlights!

Shortly after I turned 40 in 2003 – in the days more commonly known as BH (Before HDTV) or BF (Before Facebook) – I came down with the flu for the first time in my entire life to date.

“What’s this shit about life beginning at 40?” I joked with my then-supervisor at work.

A round of Tamiflu, coupled with orange juice, rum and refraining from frequent masturbation helped over that uncomfortable, microbial slump.  But I still had the gnawing sensation my body had finally decided to divorce itself from my soul and try to lead a life of its own.  I think a number of people experience that same feeling as their odometer reaches the number 40.  We never ask for that kind of life change; the shit just slaps us upside the head!

Now, however, at age 56, I’m starting to experience more unexpected physiological changes in my body, as well as cerebral alterations that occur upon realizing life moves more easily when sound and sober.  Unexpected, yes, but even more pleasurable.  It’s not the same kind of pleasure one might have seeing their best friend and one-time spouse or life partner drive off the cliff in their new vehicle.  I mean, what a way to get a new car!  Full-coverage insurance be damned!

For me, it’s my body finally getting adjusted to NOT holding in all the rage and angst I have when people piss me off – the madness otherwise known as “Life”.

Remember, we don’t develop gray hairs!  Now, my own indigo locks haven’t sported many – yet!  But metaphorically, I’m covered!  Still – no gray hairs, dear readers!  They’re stress highlights!  Thus, it’s good to let out as much stress as you can.  Just watch out for flu varmints and two-timing best friends!

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The Chief at 56

The Chief in a moment of self-adulation after a run this past summer – and to prove to real and cyber friends I can actually move faster than a fat man walking through a cactus field. Naked. Blindfolded.

As of 1:15 a.m. Central Standard Time U.S. this past Tuesday, November 5, the Chief turned 56.  It’s not necessarily as big a deal as, say, turning 55.  And I remember years ago thinking that, once somebody reaches the half century mark on life’s odometer, ensuing birthdays don’t really matter.  But I’ve learned every birthday matters.  It’s another year forward and another chance to improve oneself.  I feel I’m doing that with my writing, as well as more practical moves, such as joining a new gym.

This year’s birthday was rougher than expected.  I got sick – again.  Allergies that usually plague me with the change of seasons (the summer to autumn transition is generally the worst) hit me harder this time around; thus prompting a visit to my doctor for a trio of anti-microbial, germ-phobic medications.  My eyes showed the wrath of the usual culprits: ragweed and mountain cedar.  I confirmed my sensitivity to them some 15 years ago with an appointment to an allergy specialist.  Visits to the refrigerator, kitchen cabinets and local stores had long proven ineffective.  Ragweed and mountain cedar ranked at the top of my allergy reaction list, along with other suspected villains – oak and cat dander.  I’m also allergic to stupid people, but aside from working outside the home and driving, there’s no definite test for that.

But my eyes looked as if I’d been ambushed by a swarm of killer bees or came out on the wrong end of a boxing match.  Still, the drug cocktail – which did include the ubiquitous screwdriver – eased my angst.  And then, the little microbial fuckers resurfaced, like dental appointments and property taxes.  They assaulted me with their ecological mainstays: watery eyes, congestion, coughing and the tendency not to use Spellcheck.  Misery!  Misery, I tell you, dear readers!  Joining that gym last month was a much-needed lifestyle change.  Since the late 1980s, I’ve pretty much been a gym rat.  I even wrote about it six years ago.  However, when I signed up to this new place, it had been roughly eleven months since I’d been to a gym to lift weights.  Note to the wise and health-conscious: do NOT take nearly a year off from lifting weights and expect to be back to normal in a single session.  But, at that last gym a year ago around this time, one of the senior staff apparently had an issue with my attire.  I wore an old sweat jacket – one I only wear to the gym.  Admittedly, I’ve had it since high school.  Some 35+ years ago.  Okay, it’s a man thing!  You wouldn’t understand, unless you bear that rare Y chromosome!  The zipper is twisted, and it’s shrunk.  I often keep it unzipped during workouts.  No one had ever had a problem with that.  Until November 2018.

The man – either a lost Viking or an intense Grateful Dead fan – literally got up in my face and ordered me to “zip it up.”  He then walked away.  And so did I.  I re-racked a curl bar and left; canceling the membership once I got home.

This new gym has no such qualms about ratty, decades-old sweat jackets.  It doesn’t cater to GQ cover models or suburban soccer moms – no offense to suburban soccer moms!  It’s an old-school gym – where men can go shirtless, women can wear sports bras, and dogs run around the front office.  Literally, the owners have 2 massive and very friendly canines practically greeting people when they enter.  As a certified Wolfman and canid aficionado, I love the idea of dogs almost anywhere! 

I was determined to visit the gym on my birthday, as I’ve done with just about every birthday for as long as I can remember.  I even did so last year – before the Sweat Jacket Incident.  But I just couldn’t make it this past Tuesday.  Again, those allergies.  Or maybe the flu.  Or I’m being punished for not completing my second novel by now, as promised.  Perhaps internalizing all those angry sentiments from work and driving had finally caught up to me.  But then again, I never was too keen on the idea of being a serial killer.  That doesn’t look good on your Linked In profile.

But other distractions arose, particularly with this aging house.  Bathroom and kitchen sinks, roofs, foundations and various and sundry attributes boast large repair price tags.  I relish the thought of living in the house where I grew up.  I don’t have to fight for parking space, deal with noisy upstairs neighbors and getting rent paid on time.  I have the joy of dealing with aging bathroom and kitchen sinks, roofs and foundations.  Aaah – suburban life!

So this birthday wasn’t the best.  But I made it to another year!  I’m always thankful for that.  The alternative is not pleasant.

The other day a friend posted a drawing on Facebook of someone hugging what looked like Jesus Christ with the verbiage: “The best part of going to Heaven.”  I thought, if there is such a place, the first person I’d want to see is my father, who passed away 3 years ago and who I think of and pray to every day and night.  Nearly 5 months later, when my dog died, I fell into a mortal depression.  When I marked my 53rd birthday that year, I honestly felt I wasn’t going to make it much longer.  I was ready to give up.  I still truly believe my father returned to get my dog; in part, because he absolutely loved that pint-sized, four-legged monstrosity, but also because he simply wanted the dog to be with him.  I could understand my 83-year-old father’s demise; he had been sick off and on for years with gastrointestinal problems.  His body could no longer take the punishment.  But then, he came back to take the dog?!  Oh well…such mysteries are not for this world to understand.

Yet, as morose as I felt at the end of that year, I realized I had so much I wanted to do.  I still hadn’t published my first novel and I have other stories I want to write.  I realized I couldn’t give up.  It certainly wouldn’t be fair to the people who care about me, but it wouldn’t even be fair to me.  I’ll die, and the sun will still rise in the east the next morning.  Some people I’ve known actually think it won’t, if they die!

So, here I am at the ripe slightly-passed-middle-age of 56!  I’m still writing and still fighting!  Now, I just need to find a new way to assassinate these allergens and get back into the gym.

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Epochs of Our Lives

I saw news of that new “Aging App” that can show what you’ll look like in 20 years. So I thought, what the hell, and tried it out. It came back with this shit:

Fucking technology!

MiracleGro

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Middle Life Past

Can you at least get my surname right?!

Can you at least get my surname right?!

I knew when I turned 50 last November that I automatically qualified for membership in the AARP. But, it wasn’t until last week when I received a “Senior Information Update” mailer from some previously-unknown insurance firm that I realized I’m actually more than half past my life expectancy. The offer isn’t just for insurance. It’s for death insurance! I looked at the little rectangular piece of paper and responded the only way someone who doesn’t plan to die anytime soon would: “What the fuck?!”

As a teenager, I was a pretty good kid in that I respected my parents and other adults. But, I was a normal kid in that I often joked with my parents about their age. Then, one Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s house, I was talking with a second-cousin who was about 9 or 10. He was telling me about his new collection of video games. He then looked at me and said frankly, “Oh, I guess they didn’t have those in your day.”

No, they didn’t, I muttered quietly. And, go to hell, you little fucker!

I still thought it was funny and told both my mother and my second-cousin’s paternal grandmother (my father’s sister-in-law). My mother reacted as you might expect: “Ah-hah! Now, you know how age jokes feel!”

Okay, but kids say the strangest things. I looked at the mailer again and contemplated so many things about my life. Why did I end up an only child? Why wasn’t I born with purple eyes? Why did I develop allergies to ragweed, instead of alcohol? You know – the average, every day questions that only a Spanish / Mexican Indian / German bi-guy who likes dogs more than people and writes freaky stories about humanity’s irrelevance would ask.

But, death insurance? I haven’t even had health insurance since I got laid off from the engineering firm in October 2010! Now, I’m supposed to start planning for my death. Well, I suppose everyone should. The issue takes on slightly more significance once you reach age 40.

The father of one of my best friends died somewhat unexpectedly 10 years ago. He’d been sick for weeks, and my friend, James*, finally convinced him to make a doctor’s appointment. His father (like my father) was from that generation of macho men who didn’t go to the doctor until some body part was falling off. On the day his father was scheduled to visit the doctor, the old man decided not to go. James had taken off from work to drive him over there – and, at the last minute, his father said to hell with it. Whereupon he stepped into the front room – and collapsed. By the time paramedics got him to the hospital, he was dead. I later told James that his father probably sensed he was going to die anyway. Why waste a morning at the doctor’s office when you can drop dead in the comfort of your own home?

Neither of James’ parents had made funeral arrangements. He’d had a rough time just convincing them to compose wills. Again, they were from that generation where people just didn’t do that. But, amidst the grief of seeing their father convulsing on the floor and carried away in an ambulance, James and his family had to cobble together funeral arrangements within a matter of days. Under such circumstances, Dallas County doesn’t give families much time for planning and coordinating burials. They need that freezer space in the morgue for all the drug overdose and gunshot victims. After his father’s funeral, James managed to convince his mother to make her own funeral arrangements.

My parents took care of theirs years ago. They have their plots established at a local cemetery. But, me? I only have a will that gives everything to them, or – if they’re deceased – to be sold off with the proceeds going to the Texas SPCA. As I said, I like dogs more than people. If I could, I’d like to be buried in my white dinner jacket and entombed in my truck. But, I think I’d also like to be cremated and have my ashes embedded into a new kind of electronic device I’ll call the “I-Bod.” The “I-Bod” will be a mini-computer / Kindle-type device to be sold only to smart people who like to read and conduct actual academic-style research to help them learn and understand their world better. That means it’ll be a limited edition piece.

Here’s another thing people do more frequently when they get to that “Certain Age:” they read the obituaries. I’ve taken to glancing at them daily. A decade ago I just skipped that section, never giving it another thought. I’d only learn of someone’s death through a relative or a friend. But, that’s the way it is. For most people, our behavior changes as we age. I’ve grown more aggressive and less shy. In other words, I’ve turned into a mean old bastard! But, I still love dogs.

*Name changed.

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And Me?

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In September of 2012, I was at my parents’ house when my father was getting ready to go have his car inspected, and my mother decided she needed to take out the trash.  I had come in following an earlier and somewhat stressful job interview.  I had brought my dog with me to the house – not the interview.  I suddenly thought that I needed to check on my mother.  I don’t know why; it just suddenly occurred to me.  Good thing, though.  As I entered the garage, my mother was returning from the recycle bin, when one of her slippers got caught on the cracked driveway.  She slammed hard onto the concrete and immediately started screaming.  I rushed to pick her up; her left arm looked broken.  With my help, she hobbled back into the house.

My father came down the hallway, horrified.  “What the hell happened?” he bellowed.  He already has a loud voice, so with any extra effort, he could wake the dead.

I quickly explained the situation, which only made him mad.

It wasn’t the first time my mother had tripped while wearing those slippers.  They were cheap, rubber footwear with a two-inch heel; what I called high-heeled slippers.  A few months earlier I was again at their house with my dog, when he indicated he needed to visit the back yard.  My father decided to take him out; my mother decided to join them.  She leapt up from the couch and tripped on those same slippers; slamming hard onto the tile floor.  In fact, she came out of them.  They literally seemed to get stuck to the floor.  She ended up with a severe bruise up the right side of her leg.  A visit to their orthopedic doctor the following week confirmed nothing was broken, or even fractured.

When she fell in the driveway, my father hurriedly called that same orthopedic doctor.  He told them to come in immediately.  I drove them to his office; the receptionist could sense my frustration, as I signed them into the log book.

“Be patient, hon,” she drawled.

My mother’s arm wasn’t broken, but her shoulder was dislocated.  The doctor and two of his assistants tried to pop it back into place, as she lay on the X-ray table, but the muscles and ligaments around it had swollen too much.  They had to admit her to the neighboring hospital and put her to sleep.  It turned out to be an all-day affair.  We left the hospital around 7 P.M.

My father tossed that pair of slippers – and another similar pair my mother had in their closet – into the trash.  Since they were made of rubber, I switched them over to the recycle bin.  I hoped they could be reincarnated as the wheels of a “Hoveround” and therefore, serve a greater purpose.

She’s not the only one who’s tripped in and around the house.  My father, an avid gardener, has fallen several times outside with no one but himself to get back up.  One afternoon he fell in the master bathroom and couldn’t get back up.  He started hollering for help.  My mother had fallen asleep on the couch and couldn’t hear him.  I had lain down in my old bedroom and – with the door closed – couldn’t hear him either.  My dog’s whining woke me up.

It’s a good thing I was there to help my parents in both those predicaments.  Many senior citizens live alone and often find themselves in compromising situations.  Several years ago I had a friend who volunteered for “Meals on Wheels.”  One afternoon he arrived at the home of a client, an elderly woman who lived alone.  Two of her neighbors were at the front door; frantic because she wasn’t responding to their knocks.  My friend wandered towards the back where he climbed the tall wooden fence – and saw the woman lying on the ground, just outside the back door.  She had stepped out the previous evening and tripped.  Unable to get up by herself, she simply remained on the ground; knowing her “Meals on Wheels” visitor would be there the next day.

As I rapidly approach 50, I’m now seeing all these incidents in a new light.  Who’s going to take care of me when I get old – if I should be that lucky?  I’m an only child.  I’ve never been married and don’t have any kids.  I’m close with a couple of cousins on my father’s side, but they have their own lives.  I don’t know if I’ll end up in this house where I grew up, or if I’ll have a home of my own.  But, if I should have the good grace of living to an old age, who could I depend on for support?  I can see dogs in my future though.  They make great companions, yet unless they can be trained to dial 911, or administer first aid, that’s about the extent of their practicality.  Still, I’d almost rather have a dog than a spouse or a partner.  I’ve never been good at romantic relationships.

It’s a serious issue facing us, as life expectancy in the U.S. and other developed nations reaches ever-increasing highs.  The current (and relentless) American obesity epidemic may put a dent in the welfare of my fellow citizens.  However, medical and scientific advances have allowed the populations of developed nations to experience greater rates of longevity, which is a good thing, of course.  People should be able to live as long as they possibly can.  But, those longer life expectancies also present some unique challenges; a fair trade-off, I presume.  It goes beyond just tolerating old folks’ stories of ‘way back when.’  Older people generally require specialized medications and treatments.  Arthritis, hearing and vision loss and immobility are among many such concerns for senior citizens.  There’s a growing industry within the medical community that targets elder care.  It’s virtually uncharted territory.

My paternal grandmother lived to age 97.  But, in the years between the death of my grandfather in 1969 and one traumatic night in the spring of 1992, she’d spent mostly alone.  She got up in the pre-dawn hours, needing to go to the bathroom, when her foot became entangled in the bedding.  She stumbled forward into the baseboard of her antique bed and fell to the floor – her right elbow cut and broken.  Despite the pain and bleeding in the pitch-black darkness, she managed to pull herself back around to the nightstand where she found the telephone cord; she yanked the phone down and called one of my aunts.  My aunt called one of her sisters, before rushing to my grandmother’s house with her husband.  Someone called the paramedics.  As my aunts and uncles stood outside, they simultaneously realized one terrifying fact: none of them had a key to the house.  One of the paramedics announced he was going to break a window, when one of my uncles remembered he had a glass-cutter in his car.  They used that to gain access to the house.  At the hospital, everyone was startled to learn something more critical than not having a key: my grandmother’s body was riddled with bumps, bruises and cuts.  She conceded that she’d fallen several times in the house and had always managed to get back up.  This time was worst, though, because of the elbow break.  The emergency room doctor looked askew at my relatives.  Elder abuse had become a hot topic in the medical community by the early 1990s, and our family became concerned that someone would look at those bumps and bruises on my grandmother and think the worst.  But, no one did.

Ultimately, my father and his six siblings decided that someone needed to be with her at all times.  My grandmother wasn’t too keen on the idea, though.  She relished her independence and privacy and didn’t want someone monitoring her every move.  But, her children ruled against her.  She was fortunate – and blessed.

A close friend of mine is caring for his elderly mother and an elderly aunt.  His aunt is in her early 90s, and his mother is fast approaching that milestone.  He works full-time, so it’s a challenge to tend to the needs of both women.  On a few occasions, he once confided to me, he literally wanted to pack up and leave Dallas for somewhere else; anywhere!  Just as long as he had no one to worry about except himself.  Alas, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.  He’s not so cold-hearted.  His older brother died a few years ago, and his younger sister has a daughter who just turned one.  His sister also has a 20-something son from a long-ago relationship who lives in the same house as his uncle, grandmother and grand-aunt.  He’s a very responsible young man who finished a hitch in the U.S. Marines three years ago and just earned an associate’s degree from a community college.  But, he also works and, at his age, I don’t think he envisions a lifetime of caring for old folks.  One day, however, he and his half-sister may face the concerns of elder care with their mother.

It’s difficult to watch my parents age.  “It’s hell getting old,” they inform me periodically.  Not until a few years ago, about the time I turned 45, did I really sit down with nothing but my most honest thoughts and contemplate life as a senior citizen.  Aside from previous bouts with alcohol addiction, I’ve tried to take care of myself both physically and mentally.  I’ve suffered from severe depression and anxiety in the past; adverse effects, I now realize, of not being able to kill people who pissed me off and get away with it.  Otherwise, I’m pretty healthy.  People who don’t know me occasionally tell me I look 30-something.  That’s a good thing.  But, surficial appearances can’t make up for a strong inner core.

In 2043, for example, I’ll be 80 – the same age as my parents are now.  Will I still have relatively good vision and the mental acuity needed to drive a vehicle?  More and more older Americans are still driving, even as their reflexes slow.  Some states are approaching the delicate issue of how to deal with the growing number of senior citizen drivers; another effect of longer life expectancies.  Will I learn from my parents’ mistakes and watch where I’m walking?  Falls are the leading cause of injury to the elderly.  It was bad enough that my mother would wear those damn rubber slippers with a two-inch base, but she also had the habit of dragging her feet.  I can understand why.  Joints become stiff with age, as cartilage behind the knees wears thin.

It would be nice for me, at age 70 or 80, to sit around the house and relish the fruits of a successful writing career.  But, at some point, I’d have to do laundry, or go to the grocery store.  If I have dogs – which I honestly intend to have – I must take them to the vet periodically.  It is possible that, in 30 years, grocery shopping will be done strictly online with customers sitting at their computers using web cameras to analyze fruits, meats and vegetables.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. Postal Service – now fighting valiantly to stay alive and relevant – will be a memory in 30 years; akin to my paternal grandfather’s early 20th century carpenter tools.  But, could there also be a vet who makes house calls?

Twenty years ago, when a good friend of mine died of AIDS, I felt lucky to reach my 30th birthday less than two months later.  Before I knew it, though, the turn of the century came – and went – a rare milestone for most humans now.  I turned 40 just weeks before I marked my first anniversary with an engineering firm – and then came down with the flu for the first time in my entire life.  Now, the first decade of the 21st century is old news.  Yes, technology changes, but so do people.

I’m not a braggart.  I don’t live for the moment, or for mounds of attention.  I’m an introvert who prefers quiet spaces most of the time; a hermit, perhaps, but one who cherishes books more than booze and dogs more than people.  If we’re fortunate, we get to live to see 70, 80, 90 and so on.  But, for me personally, what does that type of future hold?

I don’t cry out, ‘What about me?’  I’ve moved beyond wishing for the adulation of others.  But, seriously contemplating my later years, I really do have to ask, ‘What’s going to happen to me when I get old?’

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Aging Well

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“It’s hell getting old!”

I’ve heard that a lot in recent years from both my parents.  I’ve watched them closely, as they’ve aged.  My father used authentic railroad ties to make borders for flower beds; just months after we moved into this suburban Dallas home in December of 1972.  Now, he has trouble putting on his socks.  My mother could remember the birth dates and phone numbers of everyone on both sides of my family.  Now, she often forgets what she did just five minutes ago.

As I fast approach 50, unmarried and childless, I wonder more and more what will become of me in 30 years – if I’m so fortunate.  “I think I’m going to die in this house,” I told one of my closest friends a few years ago, “alone.”

“What’s wrong with that?” he replied.

“Nothing!”  But, he apparently didn’t hear the “alone” part.

I’m a loner by nature.  I always have been.  Unlike my parents, I’ve always had trouble making friends.  They couldn’t understand.  It was simply beyond their comprehension why I didn’t have friends (especially female friends) calling me all the time during my teen years.

We writers are generally solitary creatures.  It’s how our minds are able to create such vivid settings and outlandish characterizations.  Having grown up so shy and timid, I found refuge in books and my own writings.  I’m not at all shy or timid now.  Years of being bullied and disrespected for being too nice and polite beat that out of me.  But, I am definitely still a loner.  I prefer the company of my dog to that of any person.  I’m certain I’ll continue to bringing dogs into my life.  I don’t fear death.  My only concern is that a canine will become trapped here in the house with me.  I hate people who abuse animals.  Thus, it would be a tragic irony if I collapse alone in this house, and my four-legged companion suffers a miserable demise because of it.

Life expectancy in the U.S. now stands at nearly 80.  It would probably be closer to 90 if obesity wasn’t such a pandemic.  It’s obviously a good thing that people are living longer.  Yes, it’s better to die at 90 than at 19.  But, what good is it to live so long and end up struggling just to get to the bathroom?

As with anything, though, quality of life is more important than quantity.  My idea of a good life is to be well-read and emotionally stable.  I’ve finally learned not to worry what other people think of me.  Their rules no longer apply to me.  I can write well into the pre-dawn hours; play with my dog; listen to my favorite music; have a mixed drink or a glass of wine – and not feel the need to have another person beside me.  I’ve had only a handful of relationships – all of which ended unhappily.  I supposed it’s because I’m too independent.  Relationships take a lot of time and effort.  And, if one cuts into my writing time, or efforts to go to the gym, then a problem arises.  Thus, my prediction I will die alone in this house.

I will have company in that regard, albeit vicariously.  The Administration on Aging, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that, as of 2010, there were about 40 million people age 65 and over living alone.  That number could increase to 55 million by the end of this decade.  In 1950, only about 10% of Americans age 65 or older lived alone.  Of course, life expectancy at the time stood at just about 65.  But, the rates of solitary seniors have also been increasing sharply since the 1990s because of the large number of “Baby Boomers” entering their golden years.

People look at you strangely when you begin talking about aging and death.  But, I’ve always been the type to think as far ahead as possible.  Often, I haven’t planned too well in advance, but it’s always the thought that counts.  My parents feel they are fortunate to have me around; even though it’s stressful trying to care for them, while working to get my freelance writing career out of the airport hangar.  (It’s inching closer to the tarmac every day, but it’s not quite there yet.)  And, I’m back on that same quandary: who’s going to take care of me when I’m old?  A dog makes a great companion.  But, while they may warn you that a stranger is approaching the house, they can’t run to the grocery store – not in the real world.  My father is 80 and still drives, even with one eye and a prosthetic knee.  I dread the day I have to confiscate the car keys.  That would be a proverbial death knell for him.  But, at least I’m here for him.

I’ll just deal with that when it comes time.  I’m trying to stay as healthy as possible and genuinely hope to live a long time.  But, on the day I drop dead, I wish for 2 things: I’m freshly showered and there are no dogs left to wander about the house, moaning in agony.  Yes, it’s hell getting old.  But, it’s hell not to live a full life.  I’ll take the old part, along with the full life.

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