“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made … ”
Browning’s words have resonated through generations. They’re the opening lines of “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” a dramatic monologue about a scholarly Jew who lived in the 12th century.
Last Thursday, the day before my birthday, I reflected on these words as I joined unnumbered old folks at Palouse Medical Center for my first of two COVID-19 vaccinations. After the careful check-in and a brief wait, two nurses in an examining room completed the “stick.” Then it was out another door for a 15-minute wait in a lobby filled with socially distanced people in chairs. It was a great birthday present!
Those events triggered reflections on Browning’s poem. It provides much for us to think about as we age. For example, I remember (at least I think I do), my boyhood morning routine: Hop out of bed, pee, dress and head for breakfast. Two minutes, tops.
Traversing the same daily process these days, I realize times have changed. Things are different: Sit up in bed and wait for eyes to focus. Turn slowly, put feet on floor. Slide off bed carefully. Stand erect, slowly, and steady myself. Turn head slowly and shuffle off to the bathroom for job one.
Emerge 10 minutes later, sometimes 15. Dig out clothes for the day. I’m proud that I still stand on one foot to pull on socks and pants. Sometimes. Other times I list left or right as balance fails. Sometimes I manage to get four toes into a sock first try. A second attempt usually captures all five. Occasionally I yield and sit for socks and pants. But then I have to rise again, slowly and carefully. No vertigo for me! The main thing to remember is to avoid multi-tasking, like getting up and turning my head at the same time.
Another 10 minutes gone. But I’m dressed, face washed, scalp polished. To do all that I needed my glasses, grimy from yesterday. Now it’s time to polish them and survey for mistakes, such as misaligned shirt buttons.
(One winter in China, as I climbed from the trolley and started to walk away, a strange woman accosted me. I didn’t realize just how strange she was until she grabbed me by my jacket, unbuttoned it, rebuttoned it correctly, nodded in satisfaction, smiled up at me, and disappeared into the crowd.)
Back to topic. Shoes are on. It’s time for hearing aids. I take them from their overnight heater (can’t insert cold hearing aids!), turn them on, plug them into my ears, and listen for chimes reassuring me the batteries are still good. They are. Now I can contemplate breakfast.Total time passed? With luck, 35-40 minutes.
After breakfast, it’s off to the grocery. I park the car, head for the entrance with other shoppers. Oops, something’s wrong. No facemask. Back to the car. Here’s where it gets complicated. Thin elastics securing the mask to my face hook over my ears. So do hearing aids. So do glasses. I make a spectacle of myself looping these tiny bands over my ears. Do I thread them between the hearing aids and the temples of the glasses or just outside the hearing aids? I opt for the latter.
Shopping proceeds without incident. Glasses are steamed, groceries paid for. Now back to the car and off with the mask. Turns out, it really didn’t matter which side of the hearing aids the elastics went on. Either way, as I gingerly try to extract the elastics, they hook the hearing aids. Out come the hearing aids, off comes the mask. Clumsy fingers struggle to disentangle them before plugging the hearing aids into place.
Browning’s view of old age was positive, but he never had to worry about COVID-19, facemasks, and hearing aids. On the other hand, I’m sure he had many more 19th century issues to deal with as he aged. Contemplating my birthday, I realize I’ve already survived eight years longer than Browning did. So I continue to write these columns, reminding myself, “The best is yet to be … .” I’m only 85.