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Gratitude in decrepitude: In celebration of a body in decline 


When my body won’t hold me anymore

And it finally lets me free

Will I be ready? – Avett Brothers, “No Hard Feelings”

As I move deeper into my sixth decade, my spirit remains willing; spry even on occasion. But my flesh? Not so much. With increasing urgency, my body seems to be sucking wind, reminding me after most any exertion that I am not, well, quite as young as I was.

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I hurt more and, as I think about it, something hurts most all the time. My right knee badgers me incessantly. The message, communicated largely through dialects of soreness and stiffness, seems to be, “Yo, dude, after five decades of pounding, how about giving it a rest?”

Other vital joints are joining in the chorus as well. I’ve learned far more about rotator-cuff anatomy than I’ve ever wanted, to understand how the simple act of throwing – something I have taken entirely for granted for longer than memory itself – has become so fraught. I suspect too that I am a likely candidate for hip-replacement surgery before too long. Can’t say I know that anatomical neighborhood very well, but it seems I may be on the cusp of moving there.

So, although I understand, in an existential sense, the truism that things fall apart, I haven’t, until recently, fully appreciated its more parochial implications: That my things – my knees, my hips, and my shoulders – will fall apart. Are falling apart.

And let’s face it, it is discouraging when your body begins to let you down. The carefree running and jumping of my youth now require extraordinary caution. Even walking resembles a sort of hobbling. And skipping? Forget about it; can’t recall the last time I skipped. So, all in all, it’s just harder to embrace the circle of life when completing the jog around that circle has become so labored.

I want to shout sometimes at the injustice. How can it be that I should have but one body for a lifetime, but it doesn’t seem up to going the distance?

And yet, although my body has begun its inexorable decline, I don’t feel in the grasp of despair. In fact, I most often feel grateful, thankful for just how far this bag of bones has carried me, for how resilient it remains despite all the punishment it has taken over the decades.

For my first 20 years or so, that punishment was considerable. I put my body through a meat-grinder of sport and game. Although slight in build (scrawny really) I was inexplicably drawn to sports with the highest rates of collision and played them for far too many seasons.

What was I thinking?

As the toll of organized sport receded in my third and fourth decades, I took to unorganized sport, pick-up games, which produced their own, albeit lower, dose of deterioration.  I took to running and can’t begin to count the miles that I have demanded – more recently, coaxed – from these weary legs. This was also my era of exploration, traveling, hiking, and camping. Fewer collisions, for sure, but wear and tear nonetheless, born of going into the wild to be with creatures, but without creature comforts.  While hard hiking or paddling, followed by a night’s sleep on hard ground, can work magic on the spirit, it can also be torture on the back.

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And the results of this decades-long punishment, all the activity, pounding and collisions? About what might be expected: things concussed, broken, cracked, torn, twisted, arthritic, and sore. Things, as foretold, falling apart.

What’s more, I have been too cavalier over many years about the trauma visited upon my carcass from the inside out, by all that I have thoughtlessly ingested. Let’s just say that my eating habits for the last half-century or so could hardly be described as plant-based. And the closest I’ve come to a Mediterranean diet? Probably, I am sheepish to report, my wine consumption. My only hope, then, is that with the advance of science, we come to learn that salty snacks, after all, are really good for you.

I wonder too – don’t we all – what I have unwittingly ingested. What toll have toxic substances, in the air we breathe and water we drink, taken on our bodies? And now, beyond even the assault of pollution and plastic, it seems our species will be tested by heretofore unknown viruses.

I am acutely aware as well that health is often determined by those most elusive variables, genes and luck. I know this from my paternal grandfather, Red O’Brien. As a 19-year-old soldier, he flew very rickety planes in Europe during WWI, including during the Argonne Forest Offensive. He survived the crash of his de Havilland bomber (he called it his “bus”) but with permanent damage to his hip. When stricken by the Spanish flu in the great 1918 pandemic, he found himself in a field hospital where many around him died or were dying. As we tell the story in our family, he stole a bottle of brandy and went AWOL. He was taken in and cared for by a local French family long enough to regain his health before rejoining his troop. A bit of luck and guile served him well in the last pandemic.

Genes, however, may have been his undoing. Although he survived WWI and the Spanish Flu, at the age of 62 he suffered a paralyzing stroke. At roughly my age, his body was broken and bent; it remained that way until his death a decade or so later.

In the shadow of my grandfather’s story, then, I can only be humble that, at this precious moment, I am upright and alive. Despite all the punishment I have visited on my declining body, I can still run a bit, chase a tennis ball, ski and skate with my kids.  Instead of despair, I feel only gratitude that despite all my creaky joints, my aged carcass remains dutiful, holding me up, moving me forward and even allowing for a bit of frolic.

Bill O’Brien lives, works (and frolics occasionally) in Minneapolis.


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