Amid sterile clinical smells, he said, “chronic.”
I scrunched my face, took a deep inhale, let out an audible sigh and said, “I was hoping you wouldn’t use that word.”
He said, “You don’t have to like it, but that’s the truth for you.”
“Wait, ” I wanted to argue with this white-coated expert in scoliosis and arthritis. “Do you know who I am? I taught yoga. I meditate. I eat kale.”
I didn’t speak my mind, but a firm arrogance had arisen. “Who me? Are you sure you have the right x-rays?” I know he felt it.
At the end of our time together, I shook his recently-Purelled hand, and said, “thank you, I guess.”
He stood up, smiled, walked me to the desk to book my next appointment, and said, “nice to see you today.”
What I said was, “nice to see you too.” What I meant was, “I do not want to be a patient. I do not want chronic pain. ”
I imagined as I left that he wrote in thick dark red magic-marker all over my chart, “Susan Young: major denial about aging.”
He’d have been right. It’s not that a few specialists before hadn’t hinted of my maturing years. Decades ago I received news of my “degenerative joint disease.” I never liked the word “degenerative,” so maybe I missed the diagnostician’s point. Even suffering on-going and increasing creakiness, denial reigned.
Last fall, an ophthalmologist scheduled needed cataract surgery for me. He wrote the date in his computer calendar, looked up at me then said , “No worries. Cataracts are consistent with your age.” Still, I clung to the illusion of lasting youth. Aging, like chronic, happens to other people.
But I will admit, last month after I heard “chronic,” a chink punctured my armor. My gut took the hit we get, the “ugh,” when we know a fresh truth is about to emerge to smash our deep-rooted beliefs. I thought, given this raw and shocking news, that I needed some pampering: I went for a manicure. The manicurist, maybe twenty years young, held, massaged and examined my fingers before she started, to plan her work. She said, “Your nails are in really good shape. Most old people’s aren’t.”
Whoa! Did she just dub me “old people?” Denial shattered. Time to stop ignoring my beyond-mid-life realities. But how?
Buddhism has a practice called The Five Remembrances, offered by Thich Nhat Hanh in The Plum Village Chanting Book. The first two Remembrances are:
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
Ouch. Why focus on this? Perhaps to know the truth of “this too shall pass;” this fit body, this sharp mind, this bright-enough spirit. Or to be less surprised by fate. And to be, as Buddhist Tara Brach teaches, “without anxiety about imperfection.” Maybe what my primary care physician calls a “wacky back” is not imperfect after all for a 66-year-old, but has its own strange perfection. For sure, soul is always young, yet human life is a chronic condition.
So I have been doing the opposite of “ego upset by a natural process.” That is, I have been reciting the Remembrances. I am of the nature to grow old. I am of the nature to have ill health. I am of the nature to grow old. I am of the nature to have ill health
As a result, I am coming to grips with a breaking-down body. I am getting more comfortable with the uncomfortable truth. I am closer to “if we are alive, we will get sick and age.” Last week in PT for the “now and forever chronic,” the physical therapist warned, “you’ll have to be aware of your limits.”
I did not ask, “Who me? Limits?” I did not say, “Thank you, I guess.”
I did say, “Sure. It’s all part of getting older. Oh, and thanks.”
Acceptance, humility and gratitude. That’s progress.