I subscribe to an idea central to all your better religions — that the only way to live is gratefully. No matter how little you have, you can revel in having even that, or, alternatively, bemoan what you lack, and the former strategy is obviously that which makes one happier. I’ve been trying to keep this in mind lately, even though my lifelong tormentor, depression, has returned after apparently losing track of me when I relocated to England from Los Angeles last autumn. But then I blow it by thinking how very good I’m going to realize I had it back in the spring of 2016, before my diagnosis.
Though only a few months younger than David Bowie – and older than the comparably departed Susan Purcell, the Elizabeth Taylor lookalike junior high school classmate who inspired some of my most spirited self-abuse sessions when I was a teenager — I seem not yet to have the disease that will eventually kill me. But I find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop.
At an age to which a lot of people I’ve known didn’t live, I wonder if everything is the beginning of the end. I wake up with a scratchy throat and think, “So, esophogeal cancer, is it?” I suffer a sharp upper-abdominal cramp while viewing television with Mrs. Mendelsohn, and think, “Oh, great: a fatal heart attack!” I have gone from being a person able to revel in generally excellent health (everything but my joints is just fine, thanks) to one who expects his good health to be rescinded at any moment.
As such, I can’t seem to maintain gratefulness for long. At the moment, it’s difficult for me to think about anything other than what I no longer have, and am unlikely ever to have again. Dr. Petrigliano said that re-replacing my right shoulder (as he did a year ago last Saturday) was going to make it very much less painful, but neglected to mention that I was going to become unpleasantly asymmetrical, with one normal shoulder (the unreplaced one), and one one in which you can clearly see the inserted…appliance in sharp relief. Nor did I expect to suffer a case of bicep tendonitis nearly as painful as my disintegrated shoulder. Thank Heaven for the arthritis in my left hand, which is often so painful as to make me forget about the tendonitis!
I think sometimes about taking advantage of the fact that quite viable used cars are astonishingly cheap in this country, only to remember that I’m going blind (ladies and gentlemen, please welcome cataracts and keratoconus), and probably won’t be allowed to drive for very many more years. I hear doors a-closin’ all around me.
Most nights, waiting to fall asleep, I think about how I likely won’t be living for many more years. On one hand, that irks me hugely, as I don’t feel I’ve even begun to realize my potential as a writer or musician. But that’s sort of a relief in an awful way. I hear and read people saying, “Well, I’m getting old, but it’s better than the alternative,” and think to myself, “How can you be so sure?” I lie awake pondering if it’ll be better to die in the next couple of years in pain, or to become one of those who slumps forever in front of a rest home television drooling all over himself and hoping it will occur to someone to change his diaper.
Last week I visited the Facebook page of an old high school classmate. In school, she was pretty, but less pretty than nice — down-to-earth and approachable, two qualities someone as shy as I cherished hugely. By the time of our five-year class reunion, though, she’d blossomed into a traffic-stopper. If she and the model Cheryl Tiegs, whom she resembled, had entered a party from opposite ends of a room, no one would have known that Cheryl Tiegs had arrived at the party. And now she’s a 10-year-old’s gray-haired, lavishly crowsfooted, lumpy grandmother.
There too go I, with terrifying rapidity. A person doesn’t reach my age without having gone something like 20 years of not recognizing his own reflection in shop windows, and one only keeps getting uglier. My cheeks are caving in. Sometimes the light streaming into the bathroom at a particular angle makes me literally gasp in horror at the profusion of unsightly creases my once-pretty punim has become. I go to the gym daily, and there pedal the exercycle like a man possessed for half an hour, so I’m not ovoid, like other men my age, but I feel that if I’m less compulsive, my DNA will catch me, and make me so. I brought on the bicep tendonitis by working out too hard following my shoulder replacement. God clearly doesn’t want me to regain my pretty biceps and pecs any more than she wants me to have a lovely smooth forehead.
It’s all terrifying, and I expect it to become only moreso.