the Mystery of Health

Of the many foolish beliefs I held when I was much younger, one in particular stands out now as I step across the threshold of my ninth decade. It was the belief that when (and if) I reached an advanced age, I could set aside concerns with health and fitness and live the remaining years of my life in pursuit of pleasures I had long denied myself. I could eat fried eggs and bacon every morning for breakfast. I could stop genuflecting to the gods of exercise, running and cycling and trekking to the point of exhaustion and feeling guilty that I hadn’t gone faster or further. I could throw out the bathroom scale. I could even take up smoking again after an abstinence of fifty-plus years.

The nature of such youthful beliefs is to expire, along with desires like drinking to excess and listening to music at ear-splitting volume and laughing uproariously at bathroom humor. I can only speak for myself, but my brain, stuffed with a melange of experiences, tells me that the bodily concerns I once expected to discard like worn-out or ill-fitting clothing are more important than ever. Maybe if I knew I would die in a few months, I’d take up a pipe or cigars, although I doubt it. I might eat bacon at breakfast, although nitrate-free of course. I would actually hate to give up physical exercise, because hikes in the mountains and workouts at home bring on a definite sense of well-being free of guilt for turning back short of a summit or failing to do a set number of bicep curls.

When I was a child I heard many conversations among my grandparents and other older adults about medical issues, their own as well as those of friends and neighbors. It was a staple of family gatherings. I don’t remember specifics other than mentions of certain organs like the heart or lungs or prostate gland, but the topic was obviously one of lively interest. This in addition to discourse among people as young or younger than my parents on the general subject of aches and pains. And then, usually discussed in hushed tones in a gathering of my grandmother and mother and aunts, someone’s diagnosis of cancer, and the assumption that this was a death sentence. A matter of when, not if.

When I was older and certain that my parents and the other adults at those gatherings were hopelessly ignorant of the real nature of things, the talk of doctor’s visits and operations and hospital stays seemed to symbolize the insular nature of their world, being obsessed with the narrow limits of their own bodies when racism, inequality, unjust wars were raging all around them. So what if your gall bladder acted up or your heart skipped beats when innocent people were dying in Vietnam, when children were starving in Africa, when Black people were being beaten by police in Alabama?

I don’t remember expressing this sentiment aloud to those adults, although I’m sure I said and did other things that annoyed them. I grew up listening to sermons every Sunday morning in church, so I should have known what it’s like to be preached to and told my beliefs, which evolved from the inchoate to the uncertain to the rigidly dogmatic, were not only mistaken but constituted sins for which I would be surely punished.

Years later, my brother and sister and I were talking—in a Zoom session because the winds of time have scattered us here and there—and the conversation turned to medical conditions. It wasn’t the first time, either, and we realized that we had become our parents and grandparents. This was the cause of much laughter, but it had a serious side as well. It is simply a fact that even though I’m essentially healthy I have visited doctors more often in the past ten years than in the first sixty years of my life. For years I didn’t have health insurance and didn’t worry about what I’d do if I was seriously ill or injured. I took aspirin when I had a headache, but other drugs were strictly recreational.

Now I have a drawer with bottles of pills for this or that malady and an organizer to keep track of what I’ve taken. I have a little device that records the thumpings and jitterings of my heart and an app on my phone that turns them into an EKG that I can send to my cardiologist. Every so often I have blood tests to determine the latest state of my blood sugar and cholesterol and a bunch of other arcane quantities that mean something only the doctor can decipher. When I walk down the stairs from my second-floor office I watch my feet and hold onto the railing.

Which reminds me that my siblings and I are overdue for a Zoom session. My sister just had a cardiac procedure and my brother had a recent medical encounter and I’ve had a pain in my shoulder that won’t go away, so there’s lots to talk about.

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