For half an hour or so each morning, I become Michael Strahan, the ex-football player. No, I don’t suddenly develop a gap in my teeth (though that might be an improvement). Rather, I find I cannot bend down to tie my shoes without pain. Strahan, like most professional football players, sacrificed his body over his career and now finds tasks like putting on his shoes to be difficult without help. (It could be worse. Consider Earl Campbell in his wheelchair.)
It’s not just my back that gives me problems. My knees have been known to go on strike or to give up entirely. My shoulder has seized up, but that is balanced by the various twitches and spasms in assorted freelancing muscles. My heart has ADD and gets easily distracted from the boring job of beating on a regular basis, lending excitement to otherwise boring evenings. The sun has damaged my skin to the point that I feel like a pepperoni pizza. My eyes can’t see what is there and my ears hear what was never said. And there’s something despicable taking place in my nether digestive tract that is best not mentioned.
This is part of aging, of course, an adventure we’re all embarked upon. This is why the Desiderata advises us to “[t]ake kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth,” things like walking up a hill without shifting into low gear or sitting without grunting.
None of my afflictions, alone, are particularly disabling (as long as my heart doesn’t yelp ‘Squirrel!’ and go bounding off by itself). But their cumulative effect is noticeable. Just as an accumulation of barnacles on the hull of a ship will eventually slow it to a stop, I’ve always assumed that my accumulation of afflictions would eventually stop my voyage, as well. Of course, ships can be hauled into dry dock to have their hulls scraped back to a pristine shape. I doubt, however, that such an overhaul is available to me.
We tend to think of poor health as something that happens external to us. I remember a quote (sorry, can’t find the source) in which a nurse asks an aging gentleman, “How is Mr. Baker today?” His reply: “Mr. Baker is very well today. Mr. Baker’s body, however, is in a very bad way.” This was a theme explored in the old Star Trek episode entitled The Menagerie in which Spock risks his career and even life to help his previous commander, Captain Pike, escape his damaged body to be free in his mind. In the absence of dry docks for the body, we’ve always held onto the hope of transferring our flag to a newer, more capable vessel.
But what about the internal barnacles, not those that afflict our bodies, but those that afflict our minds? Of course, this sentence ignores that fact that our minds are just our bodies after all, a theme that has been explored in depth by Douglas Hofstadter. Our minds, and associated consciousness, are the unique assemblage of neural networks between our ears. Anything that upsets that network can change who we are in profound ways.
In his seminal book on the subject, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Hofstadter offers the structured behavior of an ant colony as a metaphor for consciousness. He envisioned getting to know the ‘being’ represented by the various ant trails of a colony, until the day a rain storm disrupted the colony. The colony survived, but the patterns and trails of the colony changed, thereby permanently ending his ‘friendship’.
Recently, I’ve been watching several family members succumb to dementia, slowly slipping away as we watch. This is the Captain Pike problem inverted. Instead of a sound mind trapped in a damaged body, I am observing relatively sound bodies housing a growing vacancy. Talking with them is like watching a software program on the verge of crashing. Their ant colonies are being washed away and there is no hope that any type of pattern will be restored.
At what point are such people gone? This is a slow motion brain death. Because of the ambiguity of their situation, we are compelled to care for them well past the point at which they are present to receive our gift. We are left to carefully care for a rusty ship, scraping the hull to keep it seaworthy long after the ship’s master has departed for other, more exciting voyages.
Given the long slow goodbyes we will all face, isn’t it better to say what has to be said now while there is still someone present to hear?