I sit here writing, day after day, fountain pen in my hand, coffee by my side, and my mind is focused first on whatever I’m writing that morning, whether it be the next chapter in a novel or an essay or notes I need to remind me what I have to do that day. Hardly a day goes by without me sitting at the desk, the first two hours of the morning consumed with writing.
Outside of the ink on paper and the diminishing level of coffee in my cup, I don’t tend to notice much else. The only light on is the desk lamp. Sounds of animals at their food bowls are ordinary enough that I don’t give them a second thought. Everything blends into a sort of white noise that settles into the back of my mind, providing a steady, undramatic soundtrack to my steady, undramatic morning.
All that is until recently, when I’ve started noticing changes in how my hand looks as it holds the pen. I’ve never had a thick or fleshy hand; they’ve always been thin, like my mother’s and her father’s before her. The blood veins sit high, prominently across the top of my hands, which comes in handy on the rare occasion that I’ve needed an IV placed there. My skeleton has never been especially well hidden and as a result, there’s a certain form I’ve come to expect, a specific silhouette guiding the pen across the notebook.
Looking down this morning, though, what I see is different than it was six months ago. My skin sits more loosely over that mix of bone and cartilage. It fits, not like a glove, but like a tailored drape, the line of my fingers curtain-rod-distinct as gravity pulls the fabric of my skin below. There are little lines that almost look like cuts but aren’t. They’re simply the wrinkles of a fabric that is no longer taught and firm.
This morning, there’s another scratch, a tear in my fabric. In demanding my attention, one of the dogs has grazed his paw across my skin and caused it to tear. I don’t think this one will leave a scar as others have.
I pick up my coffee mug and take a drink. I just refilled it so its weight is slightly heavier. I lift the mug to my mouth and set it down again, no more than a three-second activity, but I see that the mug’s handle has left an indentation in my skin that takes longer to disappear than it did to create.
These are all things that didn’t happen before. My hands were never a point of concern. Their appearance has always been unremarkable, but now, every time I look at them for more than a split second, they scream to me, “Be careful, you’re getting old.”
The Real Effects Of Living
What I’m experiencing is not the least bit unusual. In fact, almost every human over the age of 60 is experiencing some of the same changes in varying quantities based on family history, diet, living conditions, and other mitigating factors.
If I bother to turn on the computer, which I am loathed to do as I dislike its light at this sacred hour, I am told that everything I am noticing is perfectly normal and to be expected. The slackness in my skin is caused by a loss of elastin, which is common after surviving this many years. The thinning that seems to make my veins and bones more prominent is caused by the epidermis losing mass. A flattening of the area where the dermis and epidermis come together causes my skin to be more fragile, requiring me to guard against tears and punctures that might not have bothered me before. Thinner blood vessel walls mean I am more easily bruised when I bump into things, even when I don’t realize that I’ve bumped into them.
Accenting what I already see is the knowledge of what is coming. Loss of fat below the skin in the cheeks, temples, around the nose and eyes, cause more loose skin that can make eyes appear sunken. Think of the last few photographs of Britain’s Prince Phillip before he died. This effect was stark and a bit frightening. I’ve not seen a lot of loss there yet, but I know it’s coming. I’ll make a fantastic Halloween decoration in a few years.
These changes are natural. I keep telling myself that in hopes that I might feel a little less depressed each time I look at my hands. So much of what causes these conditions are out of my control. Gravity is going to happen whether I like it or not. Fluctuation in weight, which has dropped in the past six months, might make my numbers look good on a chart but accelerate the loss of fat from my tissues. Changes in my blood sugar and blood pressure have effects as well, and my ability to control those has limits I don’t always understand.
Nothing about the changes to my external body is surprising, unexpected, or unexplained. Everything is painfully normal. There might be precautions I need to take to prevent injury, but there’s not really a lot I can do to restore what has already been lost. So, why can’t I just accept this as yet another stage of life and move on? Why, of all things, does the appearance of my hands upset me so much?
Answering those questions requires me to confront a part of my family history that I would just as soon ignore. This isn’t fun, but if I’m going to tolerate myself, I have to get past the memories these views trigger.
A Racist In The Family
My mother’s father, Grandpa to my brother and I, had nothing resembling an easy life. Born in what was labeled as “Indian Territory” in 1907, months before Oklahoma officially became a state, economic conditions required that his fourth-grade education would have to be sufficient. Knowing what I know now of his family history, there is an implication of disappointment. Before they left their home in Calais, France, his family had all been teachers, well-educated, intelligent thinkers that chose to leave France rather than deal with the persecution brought on by Cardinal Richelieu. That tradition died a mere two generations after moving to New Amsterdam in the early 17th century. Fighting in one war after another, disappointment after disappointment, each generation fought their assigned battles and moved further West. The land to which Grandpa was born was hard, unforgiving, and impossible to farm. He struggled along with an older sister and younger brother, none of whom finished what we would call primary school.
When farming didn’t work out well, Grandpa took a job laying track for the Rock Island railroad. The job seemed to offer security, a steady paycheck, a pension, and insurance. He was still a teenager when he married a Cherokee girl named Nola, my grandmother, and on March 6, 1933, after having lost a son in infancy and other failed attempts at starting a family, they were finally successful in bringing my mother into the world.
Life was not friendly. Grandpa had multiple health issues that left him with only a quarter of his stomach and a very restrictive diet. The lack of nutrition led to a loss of bone and muscle density and by the time my mother graduated from high school, Grandpa’s back was severely injured, forcing him to take permanent disability before he was 40 years old. The family managed to cobble together a simple life. Being poor in Oklahoma wasn’t that unusual of a situation. But then, barely a year after my parents married, six months after I was born, Grandma died suddenly. Grandpa was in Southeastern Oklahoma, alone.
We were in Kansas, Poppa working for Boeing Aircraft and pastoring a small church. Our ability to go down and see him, to help him through that grieving process, was severely limited. As a result, the Grandpa I knew was bitter, not at my mother or any other individual, but at life, at God, and at every authoritative structure that helped make his life more difficult. He was contrary and argumentative. He fought undiagnosed depression and frequently wished he were already dead.
More than anything, though, he was racist. Even as a child, this hurt because not only was he racist against black people, which seemed to be an Oklahoma tradition, he was racist against native peoples, his own wife’s tribe, and family. Cursing wasn’t allowed in our house, but the number of times I heard Grandpa say, “damn injuns,” or refer to, “damn drunk injuns” was painful. I knew who I was. Did Grandpa hate me? I had to wonder.
Add In Mental Health Issues
I look at my hand as it lies there across the top of my notebook—it looks exactly like Grandpa’s. The only difference is that mine is a slightly darker shade of red because, you know, he went and married that sweet Cherokee woman that was my Grandma. I don’t want to be like him in any way. Not being the racist he was isn’t a struggle, that part comes pretty easily. But as much as I don’t want his racism, neither do I want his depression, his mental and emotional distress, that perpetual feeling of loneliness that seemed to dog him no matter what efforts were made to include him. As I look at my hands, I’m not sure those aspects of his personality are as escapable as is his racism. He chose to be racist. No one chooses mental illness.
Officially, both the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization show mental illness among those ages 60 or over to run about 23 perfect, increasing to 28 percent over the age of 80. However, an extensive study in 2018 published by Cambridge University Press shows that one in two persons over age 65, that’s a full fifty percent for those of you who are mathematically impaired, have experienced some form of mental disorder in their lifetime and comes to the conclusion that little is known about common mental disorders in aging people. That means almost all the numbers cited anywhere are likely to skew low when compared to reality.
Of course, Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia get a lot of attention now that we’re finally starting to understand all they entail and the many life factors that contribute to their severity. We know considerably less about the causes and effects of anxiety disorders, the ones that seem to be unresponsive to standard medication, or the sudden and often unpredictable onset of mood disorders that turn once cheerful people into grumpy old grouches no one wants to be around, further aggravating other mental conditions that may not be so topically evident.
This whole mental decline sneaks up on you. Emotions and thoughts you’d never had before become an everyday battle and, as the skin on my hand loses its elasticity and drapes over my fingers, I wonder if something similar isn’t happening in my brain. The elasticity that one held together my well-being is, perhaps, slipping. There’s no scientific evidence for that, but then, it hasn’t gotten a great deal of study, either. Even scientists, it would seem, don’t find the aging mind all that interesting.
There was a period in my early youth before I saw my Grandpa as someone I didn’t want to emulate when I wondered why he never pursued finding another wife, or at least some type of companion. He was, after all, only in his early 50s when Grandma passed. One would think that he still retained some desire for companionship. For all I know, he did. For all I know, he tried. I was too young to understand much of what was actually going on in my grandfather’s life.
What I saw, though, was him doing some of the same things I catch myself doing now, sitting out in the yard, quietly involved in my own thoughts, emotionally detached from the rest of the world as I sit there and just think. He would smoke his pipe or cigarettes. I’m more likely to have a cigar or a glass of scotch. There is plenty of difference between him and me, but there are more similarities than I ever wanted.
When I look in the mirror now, I see the ghost of his DNA. He is the reason I have blue eyes, not brown like everyone else in the family. I have his gaunt facial features, the hollowness to the cheeks augmented by my grandmother’s high cheekbones. There are elements of my paternal grandparents as well, the size of my ear lobes and their ability to sprout hair, the way loose skin is starting to sag around my neck. There is no escaping the fact that I am the result of all those who helped put me together and the older I get, the more frightening that reality becomes. I know the challenges that plagued them, the feebleness that overtook both their minds and their bodies, and I want nothing to do with the pain nor the mental isolation they felt. This isn’t cool.
No Escape From Time
There’s another scratch on my arm. It’s been bleeding. I don’t remember it being there when I started writing this morning. Spots like that just seem to show up.
All that is happening factors into my decision of what to do next. None of the local universities want me, so if I am indeed to try and preserve my mind by exercising it, I am going to have to drive most likely to Chicago. I wonder if I am capable of handling both the mental and physical challenges of that eight-hour round-trip excursion.
But then, I wonder if I’m ready for the next chapter of my life at all. There is a level of preparedness I’m not likely to ever achieve. There will be moments and experiences that catch me by surprise.
Through all of that, though, every time I look at my hands, I’m reminded of what I don’t want to be, and what I can’t escape becoming. Time holds me, and my hands, captive. There’s no breaking from this jail. There is no parole, no chance for a pardon. The best I can do is adapt and move on.