“Bear with my weakness. My old brain is troubled. Be not disturbed with my infirmity”, says Prospero in Shakespeare’s Tempest. But at what age does one become old? And if we could answer that without resort to comparisons would it be a useful thing? Or does it, in fact, require perspective to sort it out? The famous passage in the King James version of the letter Paul wrote to the biblical Corinthians declares, ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ Really? I’ve always thought of the journey through the years as more the chiaroscuro in a painting. I can still see shades of childhood, despite my age, in the bright colours of a laugh, or the shadows of a memory. Indeed, I’ve come to see my life as a pentimento -nothing wasted, nothing forgotten, merely painted over as best I could.
I am drawn, therefore, to others who recognize their own plasticity and smile when the veneer of time is chipped. The patterns underneath persist -or would, if encouraged with a little wipe. It has become fashionable to talk of today’s ‘seventy’ being our parents’ ‘fifty’, although, again, a comparative rather than an established fact. A trope, rather than a datum. But, there are hints that this is changing, as an article in the BBC reports: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-43308729
‘Doing lots of exercise in older age can prevent the immune system from declining and protect people against infections, scientists say. They followed 125 long-distance cyclists, some now in their 80s, and found they had the immune systems of 20-year-olds.’ As a long-time runner, and avid cyclist, I am happy to hear this kind of thing.
‘Prof Janet Lord, director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing, at the University of Birmingham, and co-author of the research, said: “The immune system declines by about 2-3% a year from our 20s, which is why older people are more susceptible to infections, conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and, potentially, cancer. Because the cyclists have the immune system of a 20-year-old rather than a 70- or 80-year-old, it means they have added protection against all these issues.”
‘The researchers looked at markers in the blood for T-cells, which help the immune system respond to new infections. […] They found that the endurance cyclists were producing the same level of T-cells as adults in their 20s, whereas a group of inactive older adults were producing very few. […] A separate paper in Aging Cell found that the cyclists did not lose muscle mass or strength, and did not see an increase in body fat – which are usually associated with ageing. “You don’t need to be a competitive athlete to reap the benefits – or be an endurance cyclist – anything which gets you moving and a little bit out of puff will help.”‘
A few months ago I was driving back from a day of cycling along some forest trails in the mountains, and feeling rather smug that I had managed to avoid the rain now pounding down on the car. I was still on a narrow, pot-holed asphalt road winding through the trees, and even though my bike was securely fastened to the rack on the trunk, I had to drive slowly. Visibility was limited because of the meandering road in the rain, and more than once I confused a tree, waving its limbs in the wind, for someone standing along the side of the asphalt wanting a lift.
And then I saw him -or rather it: a figure walking slowly along the side of the road with its head down. It didn’t acknowledge my approach, and I couldn’t really tell if we were heading in the same direction. The figure was sodden in the driving rain and walked with a pronounced limp. Wearing a rather thin jacket and a toque, it slogged doggedly on as if it didn’t mind the weather.
I don’t usually offer rides to hitchhikers, and especially not here in the wilderness, but sometimes conscience beats down harder than rain. I slowed, and rolled down my window enough to shout at the bedraggled figure. On first glance he appeared to be a thin man, but as I stared inquisitively I could see long grey hair streaming across the face, almost covering a pair of bright, but suspicious eyes inspecting me.
“Do you want a ride?” I yelled, trying to be heard above the din of rain pounding on the metal of my car.
The eyes, alternated between wariness, and disinterest as they inspected first me and then the car. And finally, when I could see them resting on the bike on the trunk, they suddenly softened. “Yes… Thank you,” said a very female voice.
We were both silent for a while as we wound along the endless sinuous road, each of us waiting for the other to speak. Finally, my curiosity won out. “So, why were you walking along a lonely forest road, so far from town?” I asked. She was probably in her nineties and certainly not dressed for the weather.
Her eyes made the trip to my head at last, but danced about trying to find a place to settle. Finally, they chose my cheeks. “I try to go for long walks each day…” she said slowly, obviously trying to decide how much to tell me. She was, after all, a vulnerable elderly woman, in a car with a stranger.
I smiled. “I was out for a rather long ride today myself,” I said, trying to open up the conversation further.
She smiled in return and stared out of the window at the rain for a while. “My husband and I used to ride our bikes every day -even in the snow…”
She trailed her sentence off again, like she didn’t know how much she should reveal to me. “And now you walk?”
She nodded and I could see her sigh with the memory. “My husband had an… accident,” she said, looking out the window again.
“I’m sorry.” It was the right thing to respond, I suppose, but it sounded so anemic, so empty, in the full fury of a May storm.
She looked down at her lap, her face contorted for a second before she wiped her cheek with a damp sleeve.
I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye as I drove slowly and carefully along the bumpy road through the increasing fury of the wind-driven rain.
“We didn’t mind the rain,” she began again. “It was a challenge to see how far we could get before one of us noticed the other was tired. Neither of us would ever admit we were, of course.” She sighed again, this time deeper -as if it was a relief valve for things that were building up inside her. “But we always looked out for each other.”
I was concentrating on the road in the worsening conditions, but I could tell she was watching me carefully.
“We were always like that,” she continued, as if she had to let me know. “We’d ride until we were exhausted.” I could feel her eyes poking at my cheeks like little birds. “In our younger days, we’d take a tent and strap some supplies on the bikes and just take off. It didn’t matter where… Just to be together on a new adventure, not knowing where we’d end up…” She sighed again -this time loudly. Then she was quiet, as we both listened to the rain on the windshield and the wipers pretending to help.
“I really miss him,” she said suddenly, her voice barely audible as the car visibly shivered in a gust of wind. “It will be a month tomorrow since he died…”
I risked a glance at her. Sorrow was written like a paragraph across her face, but her eyes were resting on me in a coda of gratitude, and I think I blushed.
She took a slow deep breath and exhaled it softly. “I wasn’t going to turn around, you know,” she said, suddenly. “I was just going to keep going…” A gentle smile slowly formed on her lips and she closed her eyes and sat back on the seat, relaxed and relieved that she’d been able to talk about him. “Then I saw your bike…” she sighed again. “He had one just like it.”
And then uncertain quite what to do, she reached out and touched my arm. “I know he was telling me to turn around…”