Growing old. How is it for you? Better, worse or the same? Is it better than it was, but worse than others? Or is it getting worse but is still better than most? (Assume all perms.) How can you tell? You can GoCompare, for here, in these epistles to and from those in sight of the finishing tape, we, that is me, Darby, and her – wife even – Joan, will provide a benchmark of our experiences for anyone interested to find out how others are coping or not, as the case may be. Nosey parkers welcome, as are comments, but do, please, let’s try to avoid a race to the bottom.
I recently heard on the radio of a brother and sister, who, while visiting their demential mother in a care home, discovered another resident had taken off her top and was fondling the poor old lady’s breasts. It later transpired he was a serial sex-offender. A friend of my Mrs is in extreme stages of multiple sclerosis, living alone with divers hoists, tubes and mobility aids. It’s grim. I don’t know about you, but it’s not as bad for us. In Oldchester, we ever try to count our blessings.
One of the things about growing old is that simply finding stuff gets so tricky. So now, before I could write any of this, I’ve had to find the app on the iPad. Inevitably it’s nowhere to be seen. Tell the truth, I couldn’t even remember what it’s called because I haven’t done any writing recently. What was its effing name? Next step, google “free document software, iPad”, then off I go to the App Store and download Google Docs. It says I should update. So it is there somewhere. I click Ok, and the little blue worm turns its circle. Another click and here I am!
Anyway, absolutely everyone is growing older, but not everyone is growing old. And those, who are still growing older but have not grown old yet, can be distinguished from those who have grown old already and are, even now, growing even older. Joan is in the former category and I the latter. Specifically, Joan has but three score years to my three score and seventeen.
I’m not going to give a full rendition of what my father used to call the organ recital, when describing my state of health, but I will mention that, for perhaps five years, I’ve suffered from chronic and sometimes acute bursitis in my hips. Right now, fortunately, it’s somewhat in remission. Pain has consequences, but occasionally it even supplies the humour it usually tries to ruin.
In the run up to Christmas 2015, I was suffering. (Pieces about old age cannot omit pain.) I could barely limp to the bottom of the garden. When I get like this, I try to put a brave face on it. I don’t complain. I do what I can, but when I hurt, like, it kind of afflicts even the will to live. And adding theft to injury, it robs me of my humour. Of course it affects everyone, particularly Joan who is endlessly patient but pulled down by it.
It is the custom of our family on Christmas Day to go for a walk around the local park at about midday while the festive roasts roast. One evening we were chatting about the Christmas arrangements over a glass of wine in the kitchen – we hadn’t had much so we weren’t bickering. I said that this year I’d have to pass on the walk round the park. I was too sore. Joan is very practical and not easily deterred.
“Why don’t you get a wheelchair?” she said kindly. “We could hire one.” she helpfully suggested.
I don’t remember my reaction was that violent. A maximum of three Anglo-Saxonisms, probably repeated emphatically two or three times along with some moderate hyperventilation. This was the question that faced the unpalatable facts, the extremely inconvenient truth. A dark epiphany. Taboo.
In my youth I was an athlete, and for most of my life I’ve been fairly active, squash, tennis, skiing, jogging, gym, gardening and now Pilates (says it all, eh?), so this was a painful truth-punch in the solar plexus of, strangely, my heart. Now the pleasures of, eg., lighted hearted doubles, club friendships, a gluvein and a laugh on the sunny, shining slopes, and the sheer joy of vigour and physical challenge, are things of the past. The loss is actually a bit better than bitter, and the memories definitely sweet. At least I have them, at least for now.
Joan was just as shocked by her own question for it triggered a subterranean, submarine tremor of the subconscious, heaving up a tsunami of uncertainties and fears. Suddenly and unexpectedly she saw herself on the threshold of becoming a carer, a reluctant but selfless pusher. How the hell was she going to heave that great lump up the hill?
I went to bed early.
And slept surprisingly well. When I woke I was, surprisingly, surprisingly clear headed. Bugger it. So what? I was much more curious to know what it would feel like, than quailing before it’s, admittedly, crass symbolism. This was a practical solution. I should try it. I googled “wheelchair hire”, as Joan had proposed, and was again surprised to find numerous companies offering the service for around 50 quid for a two week hire. A few clicks later (God, the internet is useful) and I’m surprised how easy is to order one in time for the Christmas holiday.
I didn’t tell Joan about my morning of surprises. I can’t remember why. Maybe I wanted to surprise her, or maybe I just forgot. I forget.
As had been foretold in email delivery advice, an enormous cardboard box about a metre square by 300mm arrived the afternoon before Christmas Eve. A brisk but courteous courier helped me in with it. The large cardboard box was tired, bruised and scuffed from use with peeling scraps and multiple layers of ancient parcel tape. So many immobilities. Not exactly an alluring Christmas gift. I didn’t look inside.
Later, Joan gets home frazzled by the day’s work. I hear the door slam and her saying something which is pretty inaudible and completely unintelligible. (I’d forgotten to put in my hearing aids.) She struggles in slightly flushed.
“What the hell’s that enormous box in the hall? I could hardly squeeze by it.” She asked, her voice on the cusp of irritation, but she already knew.
We sighed. We kissed and agreed to leave it ‘til tomorrow. By Christmas Eve eve the dreaded contraption had been unpacked, its dreary cardboard carton stored; it had been unfolded, inspected, tested in forward and reverse, taken for practice laps around the dining table, and crashed several times. The competition to get the most of this new soap-box cart substitute was on!
Christmas Day dawned mild and sunny. At the appointed hour we set out for the park. The outward journey is mostly downhill and was easy going for the pusher but bumpy for the pushee, particularly over the level crossing, until we reached the smooth rivers of asphalt that wind through the park. This was when Neil, my son, decided to do the speed trials. The park continues to slope down from the corner where we entered so it was, shall I say, exhilarating. That was until the large wheels began to wobble uncontrollably. A catastrophic pile-up was narrowly avoided. It hurts to think about Christmas dinner with a broken nose.
So far so good, just about, but the uphill return journey was hard work. Neil was the man when push came to shove.
Christmas evening’s entertainment was not charades, but the Great Xmas Solo Wheelchair Rally. With only one vehicle and five competitors it was the perfect test of pure wheelchairmanship. (Should that really be Wheelchairpersonship?) The main event was a timed circuit around the dining table, through the treacherously narrow opening into the conservatory, swinging right and back past the dining table and across the kitchen to touch the fridge. Next, a 180 degree turn, back across the kitchen, then the final straight along by the dining table to the finishing line, the arch bordering the inglenook. Much hilarity, some provoked by my own humiliatingly poor performance.
The final event was The Wheelie. This involved slowly pushing backwards manually then suddenly forward a little so the chair tipped back off its front wheels and balanced solely on its main, big wheels. By rapidly moving these backward or forward a fraction, the driver could maintain the balance. Longest balanced time wins. More hilarity. Neil and Louise, his twin sister, took the honours.
We woke on Boxing Day, glad confident morn, with a whole day of wheelchair adventures before us. The highlight was another walk in another park, this time near my mother-in-law’s, where numerous relatives and cousins on Joan’s side would afterwards gather for a go at the cold turkey. Neil was principal pusher, Clare, our older daughter, Louise and Joan providing relief heft. We entered the Japanese garden where other walkers were enjoying a morning stroll. I’d been sitting in the wheelchair for some time and I asked Neil to stop so that I could stretch my legs. He did and I stood up.
“Good Heavens, a Christmas miracle!” Neil cried out quick as a flash. A ripple of laughter and clapping warmed the frozen air. Promising, I thought, quite promising.
At the end of the Christmas break, the old crate was returned to its grubby carton, sealed in it with yet another layer of duct tape, and at the appointed hour picked up by a courier. By then its novelty had faded, but we’d had fun, and in the following weeks, by strange coincidence, my hips started feeling better.
So now the bête-noire holds no terrors for us. But unlike the Wizard of Oz, it still has some uses: for example at art and museum exhibitions and airports. It’s common for such places to have wheelchairs to loan. Disabled access makes the navigation of different floors quite easy and in crowded spaces people are always very kind and ready to make way. At the airport there is usually a special passport lane. It’s not all bad.
If there are any wheelchair designers, manufacturers or rental agents reading this, please note as follows. First, communication between pusher and pushee is hopeless. The pusher is talking to the pushee’s back of head. Even when the hearing aids have been remembered and adjusted to the correct settings, it’s no good. Conversely the pushee is talking straight ahead in front and the pusher behind has no chance. Time for a little Bluetooth gadget or maybe just a good old fashioned analogue speaking tube of some sort?
Secondly, styling. Wheelchairs look medical, aseptic and exhibit not even the ghost of one single scintilla of joy. How about something a bit less NHS: faux zebra skin fabric seats and back, fluorescent tyres, pink arm rests and spangled handles? Extravagant rock-star/skateboard graphics, graffiti. Where are they? Nah, nah dreary Ülm.
Can someone, who knows how, mock up a 3D virtual, which I can post to cheer us all up?