When I was a teenager somewhere back in the late 1960s, I asked my Grandmother Taylor if she was afraid of dying. After all, she was an ancient old lady of 82.
“Not at all, child. Sometimes you just get tired. I look forward to the rest.”
Frankly, this was not at all the answer I expected. So I asked her what, if anything, she feared. She gave me a pleasant smile.
“Not much. Just falling down and Republicans.”
At the time I thought she was joking. My dad was a Republican and I was one of those kids who was forever falling down, tripping over things or taking hard spills in sports. I had scars from all kinds of injuries all over my body — bruises, cuts, gouges, and sprains of every sort. Once, in a Little League game, I slid home and caught the catcher’s spike just above my left eye, nearly putting my eye out. My ever-anxious mother called me “Hurricane Jimmy” because she never knew what physical disaster I would bring home next.
It wasn’t too long after this, in fact, that I crashed through a snow barrier on a ski slope in western Maryland and spent a New Year’s Eve in a Catholic hospital with my right knee in a sling. Even then, falling down didn’t really pain much more than my ego.
A few years later, I tried out for my college football team with a group of other misguided college freshmen and wound up tearing the cartilage in my right knee, requiring surgery that put me on crutches the first three weeks of my college life.
Even then it didn’t slow me down much. A year later, playing in an intramural basketball game, I reinjured the same knee and needed a second surgery to repair the damage.
During my seven years working on a magazine in Atlanta, I coached a Little League team and played on two different softball teams and was forever nursing or icing down a sore muscle somewhere on my body. In a regular winter basketball league at the downtown YMCA, I sprained an ankle so badly it haunts me to this day.
During the 1980s and 90s that “trick” ankle popped out of joint at least a dozen times, causing me to fall down in some of the most embarrassing situations. I once fell down the steps of the crowded steps of the Louvre Museum in Paris, parting a group of senior citizens like bowling pins. They thought I’d either been shot or was dying of a heart attack.
Still, Hurricane Jimmy didn’t slow down much.
I simply wore a brace on the left ankle and right knee and taught myself to walk a little like a duck on uneven pavement to avoid sudden unexpected spills. A surgeon who examined both bad wheels suggested I just take up swimming and skip the sports meant for guys with fewer years and better wheels.
Through my 40 and 50s I hiked and camped and climbed mountains with buddies, fly-fished in New England river and carried my golf bag all over the links lands of Scotland, England and Ireland. I also cleared a five-acre forest on a Maine hilltop, rebuilt a century-old stone wall and a large faux English garden in the woods. By then, both knees and ankles would swell, but a long soak in our six-foot claw-foot bathtub with a cold Sam Adams was basically all I needed to soothe the pains.
Climbing Mount Katahdin in Maine with my teenage son around my 51st birthday was really when I realized the jig was up, that I was slowing down. I made it a quarter of a mile from the peak before I sat down on a boulder and declared my intention to simply wait and observe the beautiful autumn afternoon while my son and his buddies scampered on up the “Razor’s Edge” trail to the top on the mountain on their young goat legs.
I remember thinking — for the first time in years — about Grandmother Taylor’s funny remark about falling down and Republicans.
There are compensations, of course, for physically slowing down in life. You begin to notice more of the passing landscape and appreciate how far you’ve traveled, even on dodgy wheels.
During the past decade, knock wood, I’ve had only one serious fall, but one that really hurt. While my wife was off at the farmer’s market one Saturday morning, I stupidly attempted to carry a monstrously heavy concrete planter across our wet backyard terrace and wound up planted on my rear end with a right knee that buckled but mercifully didn’t break. My legs and arm muscles were sore for days but the real damage was to the end of my middle left-hand finger, which got crushed and required medical attention after the planter crashed down on it.
The finger tip grew back. But Hurricane Jimmy finally got the message: the older he gets, the stronger he used to be.
My wife refuses to let me work in the back yard now without proper adult supervision. The dog doesn’t count.
Just to complicate matters, since last May I’ve been limping on a sore left knee that was injured while playing golf with my son on a famous links course on Long Island. It was a day I wouldn’t trade for anything, though.
It seemed like the simplest of injuries, no big deal at first, a strained knee that resulted when the sand in a bunker shifted.
But a torn meniscus in my one remaining “good” knee resulted. Doc tells me I’m too young yet for new knees, so I’ve been limping along, letting it heal on its own, doing some physical therapy and exercise to try and rebuild the knee’s strength.
I’m okay with shifting to a slower gear. This life has passed so swiftly.
If you ask me what I fear these days, I’d have to say not all that much except falling asleep in a good movie, possibly all Republicans and Democrats.
Which is why I’ll me limping slowly to the ballot box.