The gift of the physical is waning. Despite my attempts to stem the tide, my body will continue its slow fade.
I place a bowl of soup into the microwave. Behind me, a less-than-stellar day, my patience tested in the classroom, my son’s hockey practice in less than an hour. The microwave’s door holds my faint reflection. Beside the door, a panel of buttons, 0 through 9, others with basic one-word functions. I reach out then pause. I have stood here a thousand times, yet at this moment, I have no idea what to do.
It’s odd to be fifty and experience a new emotion. I’m frozen, the warmth of knowledge drained from my body. An inch separates my finger from the keys, but a chasm of understanding has opened between us. As glazed as my outside is, my inside plummets, a private free fall. I stare, but the buttons don’t budge from their indecipherable code. This must be how the half-conscious boxer feels on his way to the mat, an abandonment of the moment, the items of his world familiar yet robbed of meaning.
In a blink, I come to, a shudder of understanding, a capsizing righted. I push buttons. The microwave chirps. My soup spins on a rotating dish.
A cool morning. Leaden skies, drizzle. My pace slows as I jog a long hill. I picture my warm house, the Sunday paper, the Lego structures I could be building with my son. Instead, I struggle in the damp chill, drawn by forces of habit and vanity.
Another factor has pushed me into this dreary morning: my heightened inventory of self since the microwave incident. This past week, I’ve been looking for cracks that could betray a greater breaking, but the days have passed without incident. I’ve recalled my myriad of passwords and combinations, juggled duties, and remembered appointments. I’m reassured to think my blank moment was just a blip, a fizzle of overloaded circuitry.
I near the hill’s top. Steeper here. A trail of exhaled breath chugs in my wake. My gear clings like a cold blanket. I’ve been running these neighborhoods for twenty-five years. I have my shady loop and hilly loop. I have a route that meanders past my old apartments, another that passes town’s nicest homes. In my head, circuits of various lengths, my runs often jumping from one course to another, on-the-fly hybrids that help break the routine.
Thirteen years ago, I could still run ten miles. Now four is my max. Three is my average. Two suffices as rationalization that at least I did more than sit on the couch. Finally I reach the hill’s top, my pace little more than a shuffle. Here I pass a turn-off point I used to love, the beginning of a solitary bike path past a cemetery and golf course, a stone bridge over a creek where carp the size of ketchup bottles feed in the shallows. The route leads a couple miles further from my house, and I have my doubts I’ll ever run it again. I turn back toward home, huffing through the gray mist.
I sit in lab’s waiting room. A month has passed, early May and warm. Beside me, a large plastic cup, and on the cup, markings that break the next hour into twenty-minute intervals, visuals to aid the pace of consumption. I haven’t slept or eaten in over a day, my gut knotted and sore to the touch. Appendicitis needs to be ruled out, so I’ve been wedged into the day’s busy testing schedule. On my arm, a bandage marks the spot from which blood has been drawn.
I sip and watch the comings and goings. Outside the occasional teenager with their arm in a sling, I’m the youngest one here. A nurse sits with the gray haired woman beside me, and I can’t help but be privy to their conversation, a chronicling of the woman’s maladies, checks on a clipboard chart. I belong to a different generation than the others, but a more telling demarcation also exists. My pain is new and, hopefully, temporary. Their canes and walkers testify to hobblings that will not pass.
My name is called. I undress and sit upon a metal slab. Another needle, this one for an IV, a dye for my bloodstream. The procedure is explained. I lay down. My stomach complains. On the ceiling, a picture of palm trees, a blue ocean and white sands. The machine hums, and I slide toward a giant metal halo. The IV flows, and in my body, a released warmth, a metallic taste on my tongue. Inside the halo, cameras spin.
There is the picture-taking moment, the machine’s borrowing vision, the exposure of organ and bone. Then there is another picture, a snapshot of what is to come. I will lie beneath other scans, a host of miraculous machines, and the oracles of modern medicine will chronicle the inevitable breaking that awaits. From here on out, calendars and birthdays will matter less in the marking of time than lab results.
The machine whirs. The slab pulls back. Above me, the beautiful seashore scene, and I smile, both aware of and soothed by the image’s artifice. A computerized voice asks me to hold my breath. The slab eases back into the halo.
Two days pass. The bloat and pain have eased. The omniscient peek into my belly revealed no imminent threat, just another condition that will join the tear in my meniscus and the degenerating discs in my spine. I think of the gray haired woman in the lab’s waiting room, then of the new check on my chart.
My son and I take an evening hike. Bird calls, and all around us, a lush green that seemed impossible just months ago. We keep our eyes open for garter snakes, each of us keen to see who’ll win our bet to catch the season’s first toad. Sunshine slivers fall upon the ferns and mayapples.
The trail empties into a hilltop clearing. Smaller trees line the worn path. The trees here are well cared for, mulch around their bases. In the mulch, freshly planted annuals and plaques bearing the names of loved ones lost. We keep our gaze down. Hundreds of anthills wait in the ragged grass. My son stoops. I sit nearby. The ants are small, barely larger than a match head. They march and search, blind, driven by instinct and scent. I think of what lays beneath, the connecting tunnels, the hidden colonies.
My son holds a twig near a mound’s opening. My back nags until I reposition myself. The gift of the physical is waning. Despite my attempts to stem the tide, my body will continue its slow fade. Someday I’ll be forced to have a serious talk with my doctor. Someday I will look upon my microwave and be powerless to halt the terrifying free fall I alone will feel.
My son lifts the twig. His smile blurs as my eyes adjust. An ant clings to the twig. Here waits still another snapshot, a vision brimming with wonder. Here waits a richness beyond the physical. I have twenty, maybe thirty years, and what more could I ask for than to see with eyes that have survived long enough to appreciate this landscape of fragility and strength, this world where even the melancholy carries a hint of beauty. Here is an offering that tempers the sting of the body’s decline.
“Open your hand,” my boy says.
He rests the twig upon my palm. We draw near. Together, we wait for the ant to cross from his world to ours.