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The Joys of Age

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“At sixty, a man has passed most of the reefs and whirlpools. Excepting only death, he has no enemies left to meet….That man has awakened to a new youth…Ergo, he is young.”

George Benjamin Luks, American painter

I have reservations about posting this on BC as it might only be appropriate for a personal blog, but what the heck. As to what category it should it go under, I will defer to the editors’ judgment to place it (or misplace it) wherever they may chose. Satire? Culture? Whatever. Here is a Sunday afternoon’s quiet reflections.

There are myriad wonderful benefits of middle age. It has taken me many years to come to this conclusion. In my younger days, I raged. I fumed. I ranted. I rebelled. I have pictures of me in my youth, when I had more hair, fewer wrinkles, and seemed to always have a serious expression on my face. I was attuned to every slight, every ill-mannered comment, every question of my knowledge or judgment. Even the slightest sense of a challenge to my omniscience – a lowly pharmacist questioning my dosage instructions on a prescription – would be enough coal to keep the fires of indignant outrage burning for the rest of the day.

I remember the daily annoyances that used to drive me absolutely berserk. Just the drive to and from work would toggle my buttons just the wrong way for the full 24 hours, usually every day. People parking their oversized SUVs too close to my car. Drivers pulling out in front of me, quickly and just in time to cut me off, and then slowing to a crawl. Or, as I approached a red light, pulling up on the side street, with perfect timing, there would be an oil-burning “hoopty” that would trip the traffic light and force me – ME! – to stop for their smoke-spewing, back-firing entrance onto the throughway. One lousy car – probably a minimum-wage dolt at that – and I have to stop for them! Or some politician giving a speech on television and saying all the wrong things. That would give me enough righteous outrage for days. A teenager with his car radio booming with those horrendous bass acoustics rattling his and, more importantly, my car windows.

But for the past few years, I have become aware of quite a change. Driving home has become an almost welcomed comic ending to the day. I like to drive without the radio and in the peace and solitude of my little car because the entertainment lies outside these comfortable confines. Watching the helter-skelter drivers, forever jockeying for position and all ending up together at the next red light with hardly a change in their starting position brings a wide smile to my face.

The young pharmacists, fresh out of school and equipped with the knowledge – or at least their computers are – of every known side-effects of every drug on the market, still question me about prescriptions. They call to tell me that my recently prescribed Drug X has been shown to cause diarrhea in 2 percent of patients when used with Drug Y the patient is already on. They ask, with their best phone voice, if I really want to use this combination? As I suppress a laugh, I switch to my deepest, professorial voice and reply “Yes” and thank them for their well-researched, current information on the subject of these possible drug interactions. I assure the well-intentioned, young graduate that I think the patient will be fine. I thank the pharmacist again and hang up with a whimsical smile on my face. I think, briefly, of the pharmacist making a note in his log that they warned the prescribing doctor of the possible interaction and the physician accepted the risk. “CYA” and all that, at its very best.

I come to my empty home – I am divorced and my children are grown – and I, maybe to some, selfishly, revel in the tranquility. I have probably always been a bit of a loner but, like so many things, I fought against it. I married and stayed married for almost 25 years. I had three great kids. I grew up, for all practical purposes (a much too long a story), as an only child, but I thought it would be a good thing to have kids. I served 12 years as an Army doctor – this, after growing my hair long and vehemently protesting against the military and Viet Nam, Kent State, and the assorted missteps of the 1960s. Now, after all the rage and the indignation, I have finally had a soulful, spiritual exhale.

But lest you think I am some bitter, complacent, aged shell of a man, resigned to living on the edge of society for my remaining few years on this planet, I assure you nothing could be further from the truth. In my heartfelt solitude I have found an immense sense of peace and comfort. It is a oasis in my heart where resides a calm. There is a sensation that one must feel when, after fighting upstream against the rapids of a raging river, you reach a tranquil pool. Here, at the top of the headwaters, the current no longer pulls downward at you. There is no struggle and only minimal effort keeps you afloat. After the long swim, banging against rocks and scrapping against the shallows of the raging torrents called life, there is a respite.

I have a recurring mental picture of the salmon swimming upstream from the ocean in the northwest rivers. They fight against the river’s torrent to spawn. Then, from starvation, trauma and exhaustion, they die. We spend most of our lives in the same sort of struggle. Fighting and clawing against the currents of daily life is our youth. And, as we age – doesn’t “maturing” sound better? – we realize that, despite all our fighting, kicking and screaming, we ultimately reach the same tortuous end. Some sooner (like my son, Danny, 1980-2002) than later.

After over a half a century of fighting the good fight, I have reached a sense of contentment. I have achieved far more than was rightfully mine to achieve. The only son of a mail carrier in a family that never went farther than high school, I was the first in our modest history to go to college, much less medical school. My family could never afford medical school so I accepted a free-ride from my old nemesis, the good old U.S. Army. I have published 3 books, spoken to the American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians. I have published medical research papers. The whole nine yards. I am proud of what I have accomplished. More importantly to me now is that it has made my parents proud. Now as they slide onward toward octogenarian-hood, they can still talk to their neighbors about their son, the doctor.

Truth be told, there have been many (many, many, many) failures and regrets along the way. I was never much of a father and an even worse husband. But I have made peace with these glaring imperfection and defects. Now, instead of regret and discontent for the errors and missteps, I am unabashedly happy. I have taken the conscious and innermost decision to rest in the backwaters of whatever remains of my life. Lest you get the idea I have given away all my worldly possessions and have gone to live in an Oregon commune, you couldn’t be more wrong. I have all intentions to live life to it’s fullest and enjoy whatever time I am given on this earth. It’s just that I am, at long last, happy and contented. I am, in the trite old (is it?) phrase, “in a good place.” Surely, it is not the absolute cloudless calm that I know death will be, but a conscious, deep sense of the sudden lack of conflict. It is a fine place to be.

I can speak, with some degree of experience, about the sensations of death. I recall, with great clarity, the “time I almost died.” I venture that many have had similar claims to the almost-afterlife, but mine remains quite vivid with me. During a heart catheterization prior to my quadruple coronary bypass (it sounds more dramatic to say “quadruple” than simply a 4-vessel bypass), I had what pop culture would call a “near-death experience.” [Why does no one refer to it as a “far-life experience?”] During the procedure, shortly after I threw up from the nausea induced by the dye injection, I remember what can best be described as simply falling asleep. But unlike the sleep of fatigue or after a day’s work, it was a sublime drifting off into unconsciousness. I don’t remember the “feeling” of dozing off in any of the many thousands of naps and nocturnal rests in my life. All I recall is laying down and, then, waking up. But this particular sensation was exquisitely unique and most memorable.

Before you roll your eyes, it really was a sensation I had never felt before and I have not since. There was no “light at the end of a long tunnel,” no voices calling for me in the distance, no angels, none of the things I have heard from near-death survivors. No artistic beams of light whisking my vaporous soul away as in the movie Ghost or dozens more. This feeling was something entirely different. It was an overwhelming sense of calm, of peace, of solace. It was a deep inner sense of tranquility.

I noticed later, in the cardiac care unit, that I had some very painful circular burns on my chest. When I asked the nurse what they were, she nervously informed me that my heart had “stopped” (specifically, I went into asystole) during the procedure and I had to be “defibrillated” 6 times to resume an effective heart rhythm. The burns, I was informed, were from the haste of the cardiologist to apply the paddles to my chest with inadequate conductant gel and the increasingly higher voltages used in the attempt to get my heart back into a functional pulse. When I discussed the episodes with my cardiologist, a good friend who I had actually trained during his Internal Medicine residency, he told me he “was scared to death” he was about to lose his former Chief Resident and friend. [More truthfully, it was probably that he would have to explain the death of a Staff Doctor to his superiors] His exact words were that I was “dead for about 60 seconds.”

Since that little heart stopper, when I was the ripe old age of 42, I have lost all fear of death. Death, in my mind, body and in the innermost depths of my soul, is nothing to be feared. It, I am convinced, will be an almost orgasmic peace. Perhaps not in the circumstances in which one dies – car wreck, gunshot, heart attack – but, when the heart pumps its last, I am convinced we will all have this peace. When those last few red blood cells deliver their last molecules of oxygen to the last living brain cells and we have an “irreversible end of consciousness,” we will experience a final, ultimate, overwhelming sense of placidity.

With apologies for the diversion, I return now to the point of all this rambling: whatever lies ahead, it’s all OK. Through all the aches and pain of waking up each morning, all the alopecia, all the wrinkles and blemishes, the daily loss of neurons, it’s all going to be just fine. And when people question my judgment, drivers cut me off on the freeway, the power goes off in a storm, or I forget to record my favorite TV show, I will try to remember that lesson. I wish, as we all do, that I could go back and visit myself when I was 18 and scared to death of starting college, or when I was 24 and marrying for all the wrong reasons, or when I was 39 and leaving the Army for the alien and increasingly competitive world of private practice, or even just 3 years ago when my son died. I would smile, knowingly, and whisper “you will get through this, too.”

Age does have some unique advantages and I like find that I like them very much.

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About Diet Doc

  • Actually, it won’t be all that long until being old and decrepit won’t be inevitable; I just hope I live to see and do it!

  • dragon lady

    Aging sucks in everyway: loss of strength, looks, motivation, health – everthing! A very cruel system!

  • This (comment) is so outdated that I feel as if visiting a cemetery of buried reflections on eternal topics. Suppose BC lasts forever, eventually beyond the age of Internet, visitors, human or alien, might like to communicate with you all who took part in this congregational, well, emoticon. We shall all have been physically gone but this, these words will remain as I sort of after life. The word, the recorded word is afterlife. The old chum from Stratford-upon-Avon sonnetized this commenting the fleeting beauty of a princeling or whatever. People so gifted as you above me need record their past tempestuous minutes for the sake of those who come if for nothing else then for the curiosity risen by this elegant pile of poetry, this digital epitaph on serene weathering into fragile and often humanely degrading old age.
    Congratulations to all of you who so impressively heart-stormed this great line of thought initiated by Ron.


  • Ed Strnad

    Hi Doc…
    I wrote “Getting Old Sucks.” Thanks for the plug.
    -Ed Strnad

  • Thank you, bhw. With all the wonderful writing on BC, I surely consider this an honor.



  • The Blogcritics’ editors liked this one. It’s a pick of the week. Congrats. Put the news up proudly on your site.

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  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Ron

  • Eric writes: “…I am extremely sorry about your son.

    Reply: Eric, thank you so much. I miss Danny a lot but, every time I start to feel sorry for myself, I think of his brother, my son Ronnie. They were twins, identical twins. I know Ronnie’s sense of loss dwarfs mine by comparison.

    Eric, you keep raging, young man. We need you and others like you who have that passion and that energy – to provide support for BC as you do and for all the other causes in your life. I enjoy this place so much for tolerating my BS and my occassional rants. It’s a welcomed outlet for the occassional feedback that my writing gets and, even more, just to be able to “put it out there,” in the public.

    I appreciate all that you, Temple and the others provide here.



  • Eric Olsen

    very very beautiful thinking and writing Ron – thanks so much and I am extremely sorry about your son. I still rage against the dying of the light and much else, but I too feel a much greater sense of calm and happiness than at points earlier.

  • Nancy writes: But I sure hate the bodily side of ageing: the aches, slowness, increasingly bad eyesight, et al.

    Reply: Yeah, the physical decline is definitely noticeable, but I like to think the deliberate, slow gait I display is one of grace, not decreptancy. It doesn’t really seem to be a limitation as, at the same time, I find very little reason to hurry for anything any more. (grin) As for the need for bifocals, that is a bt of a drag and those damned little floaters I see when I change the position of my eyeballs – such as looking up quickly – is occassionally disconcerting as I feel like I need to swat at a gnat or something.

    But, Nancy, as I wrote earlier, it’s all OK. I am perfectly willing to swap the energy and agility of my youth for what I have gained in wisdom and perception of the world around me. Small tradeoffs, big dividends. Just watching everyone else going bonkers around me is entertainment enough.



  • Nancy

    I wish I had achieved that level of serenity, but I find as I get older, I get MORE idealistic, more save-the-world, more enraged by injustice, etc. In a sense, I seem to be turning into a sort of W. Gladstone. What has developed is a lack of crisis every time my hair has a bad day, or an outfit isn’t perfect, or I make a mistake on something. Unlike when I was a teen, every molehill is no longer a mountain. But I sure hate the bodily side of ageing: the aches, slowness, increasingly bad eyesight, et al., and the thought of death bothers and scares me silly, which is really stupid, because what am I going to do about it? Oddly, when I was 22 I did have a near-death, and I was serene for several years afterwards, secure in the knowledge that nothing really matters in this world, in the end. Somehow that wore off after awhile; even though I remember the thought, the feeling is gone. Hopefully, this will change, if I don’t morph entirely into Will G.

  • Cerulean writes: I don’t want to rain on your parade. That was graciously written. I find that aging sucks. I just hate it.

    Reply: Cerulean, no rain here, no umbrella needed. I would, however, like to hear you be more specific. “Aging Sucks” is a bumper sticker. What about it bothers you most? I am really, sincerely curious. I have seen a lot of your posts on BC and I am intrigued. What’s up?



  • I don’t want to rain on your parade. That was graciously written. I find that aging sucks. I just hate it.

  • Swingingpuss writes:Thanks for sharing such a beautiful post doc, to find serenity in death is as important as living a life without regret.

    Reply: Thank you for the reply. I don’t look forward to death but I really think it’s time, at any age, to cease and desist any worry about that which is inevitable. It is something I have thought a great deal about lately and I have examined my feelings about it along the way. We claw and fight it for all our years on earth, from, primarily, fear, and we really should just live. Relish and taste every breath, love and be loved, and when it comes, it comes. Mortality is the one thing shared by us all and it is still yoo much of a taboo to discuss, even with our closest friends. It shouldn’t be.

    Whatever one’s beliefs are about the end and afterlife, if there is one, are not to be feared or ignored. I am just having too much darned fun where I am now. I wish folks would become able to discuss it; I think we would have better depths of relationships if it were out there for us all to examine. It’s not morbid, it’s just a part of the process.

    Thanks again for your comments.



  • Thanks for sharing such a beautiful post doc, to find serenity in death is as important as living a life without regret.

  • Shark writes: That’s why many old people are considered *abrupt, *cantankerous, *grumpy, and *overly opinionated.

    Reply: I suppose so but those who fall into those categories are, IMHO, still “on the rage” (there is an “e” after “rag”). I just don’t participate in those sort of conversations. I guess it would be best described as being “aloof.” I know what I know and I believe what I believe and the chances of changing anyone’s mind through discourse is either (a) not worth the effort, or (b) inherently impossible.

    You are right, Shark, it is a very nice place to be.



  • Shark

    Nice piece, doc.

    (Growing old still sucks, but consider the options, eh.)


    Coupla points apropos nada:

    re. “…I remember the daily annoyances that used to drive me absolutely berserk.”

    I think it’s a combination of two inherent impulses of the young:

    1) wild, preposterous ideals;
    2) a young person harbors the illusion that s/he can ‘change’ the world;


    For me, one of the main benefits of my — hurumph — advanced age is that I don’t feel the need to ‘compete’ with anyone on any level; physical, career/status, monetary, etc.

    (ie. been there — done that; what seems incredibly important and exciting to a twenty-five year old seems meaningless and boring to a fifty-something.)

    And there’s a certain amount of psychological freedom that is impossible to describe to someone in the throes of a testosterone surge.

    It’s the first time in your life that you can honestly say: I DON’T GIVE A SHIT WHAT YOU THINK. It’s a beautiful feeling that one has to earn through pure duration, introspection, and experience.

    PS: That’s why many old people are considered *abrupt, *cantankerous, *grumpy, and *overly opinionated.

    * Shark