Firsthand | Experiences with aging
By Ron Matross
I’m slowing down and I’m not particularly happy about it. I fully appreciate the pleasures of taking things more slowly and savoring moments of beauty, knowing that my lifetime supply of such moments is dwindling. Still, there are times when I mourn my swifter, stronger self.
I particularly feel that remorse, tinged with a touch of jealousy, when I’m out riding my bike and another old guy blows by me. Being passed by somebody my own age stings a bit. I sometimes deal with my feelings by doing a “catch and release,” speeding up and catching the person and then backing off without trying to pass. This is actually a constructive response, since it gives me a little interval training while reassuring me that I still can move it.
A deeper relief comes when I see people out walking or riding despite obvious disabilities. There’s one guy I see frequently along West River Road who pushes his twisted body slowly along with his cane. Moving looks like a struggle for him, but there he is. Out there. Doing it. Every day. Seeing him makes me feel admiration for him and gratitude for what I have. I have limitations, too, but they aren’t as challenging as his.
Grace and grit
It occurs to me that successful aging involves an ever-changing mixture of grace and grit. Grace to accept your limitations, and enough grit to keep them from dominating your life. I’ve seen people who’ve gotten the mix wrong: bitter old folks who are crabby and mean, passive people who have given up, and those whose Botoxed faces and unnatural hair colors bespeak a desperate pursuit of youth.
I’ve gained some of this wisdom the hard way. I’ve undergone three big rehabs, one of which was eight years ago when I had a cavernoma, a bleeding growth of abnormal blood vessels on my cerebellum. My terrific U of M neurosurgeon removed it and saved my life, but I was left with double vision and a lack of balance. I couldn’t walk a straight line. I went to a residential rehab facility where I started intensive eight-hour-a-day therapy to regain my balance and vision. The outcome was by no means certain.
It was there that I developed the motto, “Illness or age is gonna take what it’s gonna take, but don’t give it any more than you have to.” GRIT. The corollary was, “Tough break. Don’t be a jerk about it.” GRACE.
I was prepared to live the rest of my life with diminished balance and get a tricycle to ride, but I desperately wanted to avoid that. After my therapy sessions I’d spend evenings in the library working on “extra credit” kids’ puzzles to regain my motor skills. Thank God my rehab was successful, but I like to think I would have had the grace to remain positive if it hadn’t been.
Maybe I will descend into bitterness when the next setback comes along. I hope not. Aging challenges each of us to find the right combination of grace and grit to make our time enjoyable, for us and for those around us.