Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
May 12, 1994: My husband and two teenage sons were comfortably squeezed onto the couch watching Seinfeld. I was in the same basement room pecking away on the family’s new computer, trying to get my head around Windows 3.1.
Behind me there was giggling, then outright laughter. Moments later, my 13-year-old rushed up the stairs screaming: “Gross! Get me outta here.”
I turned to look at the TV and heard George say “… the water was cold,” then follow tersely with: “Yes. Significant shrinkage.”
I looked at my boys and shrugged. “Doesn’t concern me.”
Twenty years later, “shrinkage” threatens to consume me.
I live in a world of diminishing dimensions. Thanks to osteoporosis, my previously 5-foot-6 frame is now three inches shorter. I’ve broken two bones tap dancing, and am trying to get on a list for a knee replacement.
My husband’s bones are also brittle, his muscles less elastic. We both did face plants this year. I broke my nose, he twisted an ankle.
As seniors, we’re forced to tread the earth more lightly. Breasts, uteruses, bladders, spines – is there a body part that doesn’t sag and shrivel?
The shrinking organ that’s causing us the most distress is the brain. Research shows it starts atrophying by age 20. A mature three-pound brain will shrink as much as 10 to 15 per cent over a lifetime, mainly in the frontal and temporal lobes – the areas that control thinking, planning and memory. My husband and I recently shared a minor financial fiasco in which these attributes were sorely lacking.
I was at the supermarket checkout, three bags of groceries sitting in my cart. I put my credit card in the machine and entered the PIN, only to read “Your card is declined.” Sensing the growing lineup behind me, I panicked and tried a different card. Declined again. I was mortified and asked the impatient cashier to key in a debit payment. As she did I was already whispering into my cell: “Hon, I’ve forgotten our debit PIN, and there’s an issue with both our Visas.”
As I finally headed for the exit, the cashier was calling out “Dearie, you forgot your milk.”
How could this happen? A series of missteps: an invoice paid to the wrong Visa account at a bank machine; another card never activated; a memory failure under pressure – brain shrinkage!
As the brain becomes less effective, so do the senses. Trifocals and nightly drops for encroaching glaucoma are easy to manage. It’s the increasing audio loss that causes confusion. My husband needs the sound on the stereo and TV cranked up. Too much volume makes my head throb. Earphones help, but preclude discussion. He has difficulty hearing conversation in noisy places. I speak too softly. He gets confused. I get tired of repeating.
George was appalled that Jerry’s date, Rachel, might get the wrong idea after viewing his shrunken penis. “That was not me, Jerry! That was not me!”
I feel the same about our mental shortcomings. I know my husband will get the important things right, so why do I make a big deal when he can’t remember what day it is or arrives home empty-handed after promising to pick up vegetables? And why do we both feel compelled to jump in and complete each other’s sentences without waiting for a thought to mature or a name to be remembered?
Like George and his tiny member, we cannot let our withering brains define us. We are still in control. After a heart attack, my husband suffered from arrhythmia. At night I listened anxiously as his heart thumped wildly until he woke up gasping for air. Doctors told me to call an ambulance if the fibrillations became unmanageable.
I convinced my husband, who has avoided the gym his entire life, he should take an introductory course with a personal trainer. He’s now a regular at the local gym and follows his trainer’s advice to attend yoga sessions. Every Tuesday morning, from my own mat, I watch in admiration as my adventurous husband tries to twist his 6-foot-3 (though shrinking) frame into a pigeon pose then uncurl into a downward dog. The fibrillations? Gone.
“Like a frightened turtle,” Jerry told Elaine when she inquired about George’s shrinkage. And that’s the very thing I don’t want to be. Shrinking must be faced head-on.
It’s time to get tested for hearing aids, write more creative memos, laugh at our absurdities. Does it matter that we rewatch episodes of Midsomer Murders, recognize the quirky characters but have no memory of who murdered whom?
We are the lucky ones, alive and dreaming at 70. I bought my husband a leather recliner for his birthday. Sometimes I watch him nap after his workout, an open book on his chest and a look of contentment that suggests he’s planning the summer garden or looking forward to a dinner with family and friends.
He doesn’t look old or young; he’s simply the man I’ve adored for 54 years. We’ve shared so many things – most wonderful, some filled with unbearable pain. While shrinkage is inevitable, I need to keep remembering that the capacity to love and understand can expand forever.
Dell Catherall lives in Vancouver.
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