This week I went to a medical appointment with a dermatologist.
The perky physicians assistant, who maybe was thirty, started to irritate me with her manner of being overly kind, overly solicitous, to the point of being demeaning. I am 59, but this woman made me wonder, “Is this how I will be made to feel when I am 69, or 79?”
Just after getting the cotton gown around me, with the brilliant open-back design guaranteed to make the wearer feel vulnerable and silly at the same time, the doctor came into the examination room. She was a fair redhead with flawless skin. I calculated the minimum time to become a doctor of dermatology, even for a gifted overachiever, and figured she was at least 27. I imagined she was delighted each time she went to a bar or nightclub and was asked to prove her date of birth.
The doctor glanced at the recent phenomena of red blotchy skin on my forearms and the new clusters of lesions on my face, and then, moving aside the cotton gown several times, glanced at each section of my body. While she sat looking into a computer screen and her fingers expertly typed notes at 110 words per minute, she summarized her answers to my rather ignorant and searching questions: No melanoma. The red blotches on forearms and lesions on face indicated my skin and even my blood vessels were becoming thinner, rupturing. In a word, I was aging.
After the doctor had left the room, I removed the clown gown, dressed in my street clothes, and recalled a memory from long ago. I had been driving my car in Manhattan, all the windows down on a warm sunny day. As I pulled up to a stoplight, a convertible car pulled up beside mine, and a woman called, “Sir? Excuse me, sir?” I turned and looked. There were three attractive young women in the car. The one in the back seat asked me for directions. I gave her directions. She said, “Thank you, sir!” The light turned green, they drove forward, I drove forward. And I realized that was the first time I had ever seriously, respectfully, been addressed as “sir”. The three women may have been just past twenty. I was just past 30. I frowned, and the memory embedded itself for periodic exhuming over the coming decades.
What else should I expect? Time passes. Like everyone and everything, I age. Which is to say, I am trapped inside a complex and inexorable process of falling apart, breaking down, rotting away.
When I come across interviews of very old people, usually women, on the occasion of their 99th or 103rd birthday, the interviewers always ask two questions. The first is, “What is your secret for a long life?” The answers are scattered, idiosyncratic; from “only eat two small meals a day”, to “drink red wine and maybe a shot of bourbon now and then”, to “smoke two packs of Lucky Strikes every day”, to “don’t give a dang what anybody else says.”
The other question the long-lived are asked is, “How do you feel inside, now?” They all have the same answer: The same way they have always felt, whether 7, 17, 27, or 77-years-old. I, too, at 59, have the same droning voice inside my head, sometimes encouraging, most times reproving, and I behave with the same timid, yet forward-moving behavior, as when I was 7, 17 or 32-years-old.
The only thing that has changed is that I am less afraid. Less afraid of real or imagined failure. Less afraid of real or imagined humiliation. Less afraid of real or imagined discomfort, suffering, aloneness. I could be wrong, but I believe I am less afraid of death.
Decrepitude, on the other hand, scares the shit out of me.
It is not the new red blotches on my arms or burst oil ducts on my face that bother me. These are but the leading edge of an inescapable force: Entropy. Which is a word to describe being an enclosed thermodynamic system in the complex and inexorable process of falling apart, breaking down, rotting away.
I believe there are only two things I can do each of the 17 times a day I run smack up against the certainty of my looming death. The first is to tell myself I must fully, honestly, and without pleading or whining, accept what I already know is true. I am an infinitesimally small and nervously animated collection of nothing more than stardust.
And that was pretty much what I was telling myself as I came out of the medical building,
I turned to the right, and strode briskly for fifty yards. Then stopped, and said out loud, “Wait. I think I’m parked in the other lot.”
I did an about face and strode briskly for fifty yards, back to where I had started, when I noticed a blurry white patch in the upper peripheral vision of my right eye. I stopped. I took off my eyeglasses. I carefully extracted a bit of toilet paper stuck in the hinge, where it had been since I had cleaned my eyeglasses three hours before.
Which caused me to look into an imaginary mirror, and see myself as the physician assistant and doctor would have seen me. A gray haired, gray mustached gentleman blithely unaware of the bit of toilet paper stuck in the hinge of his eyeglasses.
I laughed aloud.
Which is the second thing I try to do each of the 17 times a day I run smack up against the certainty of my impending death.
And then, because I have acquired experience with the vagaries of aging, I checked my fly.
It was unzipped.
I zipped up, and briskly strode to where I thought I had parked my car.