Sunday, February 12, 2017

Adjustments in middle-age

We just spent ten glorious days on a Florida beach to be near my energetic in-laws, who are only fifteen years older than I. Still, being with them, I could envision our inevitable future … How many optometrist appointments do I have left before I, too, line up three pairs of single-function eyeglasses next to my La-Z-Boy? I could also sense the coming of the day when I will say what they now say, “When we moved down here, I power-walked the beach every day, but then knees and hips ...”

Friday at lunch, my father-in-law says he used to be able to do anything until just a few years ago. Now, and he gives a lamenting shake of his head, he has trouble accepting that those abilities are gone forever. I said I could identify. I could physically do anything I wanted to most of my life. Now, I panic if I open a public restroom stall to see a low toilet. I am going to say the reason is my knees, but his jowls jiggle so hard with laughter, I figure he doesn’t need that knee detail to know exactly what I mean.

I have almost thirty years of knee-pain-free-beach-walk memories, but on this trip I am sidelined for a few days by aching knees. This year, instead of pondering middle age and God’s glorious creation by beach-combing, I must do it by people-watching with feet elevated and ice packs on knees.

From our oceanfront balcony I see all variety of beach behaviors, from lean jogger dropping to do fifty pushups to scruffy treasure hunter bending to examine the sand below his metal detector. This beach has a wide surf span with packed-down sand as well as wide undulating dunes before rows of sea grasses, sea grape bushes, and weatherworn stairs and decks of seaside residences. One tide laps the beach with soft white lacy bubbles. Twelve hours later, the next tide deposits tongues of hard crunchy seashells, most broken and sharp. And so the cycle goes.

Barefoot power walkers, leisurely strollers, and beachcombers abound near the tide line. Some beach walkers look like poodles prancing on hind legs, paws extended. Each morning on the hard-packed sand, a young man on a fat-tire bike leaves checkered tire tracks in a loopy, silly pattern. Slightly bulging middle-aged men and women nestle into dunes to read books—real, printed books—in beach chairs under colorful parasols.
Four preteen boys frolic in waves with boogie boards. I’m pretty sure the woman sound asleep on a beach towel nearby is their mother. Two bikinied beauties sunbathe with the cutest, brightest-white Shih Tzu in the world. I am so enchanted by the frisky dog’s antics, I hardly notice the girls—until the next day when I see them heading down to the beach with their dog. They wear thong bikinis that completely expose their perfect derrières. Ordinary people wear thongs? In public?

One sunrise I notice a man taking photos, not of the horizon’s golden glow, but of another young man diving out to sea under an incoming breaker, then diving under an incoming breaker back toward the beach. Then he stands waist-deep in swirling suds and shakes salt water and sand out of thick black hair in dramatic shampoo-commercial fashion. Then he repeats double diving and hair flinging.

One moonrise a lone woman sits at tide line with knees tucked up to chest … just she and infinite sand and pastel sky. I don’t remember if she stayed until God flung the Milky Way of stars above her head.

These next two folks are my heroes.

Each morning a gray-haired lady walks flat-footed down rotting, split beach stairs and across a gentle dune to the parasol she had planted in a dip between dunes days ago. Ruffles on its navy and aqua gores flutter in today’s ocean breeze. The lady carries a folded beach chair, whose silver frame she tugs apart under the parasol. Bending at the waist, she pushes and pulls until she is sure the chair is fully open. Then, abandoning sun shade, she waves to a sitting seagull, picks up chair and plods down to tide line, plops the chair and herself down, and extends her bare feet into sea foam, soft bubbles between toes. She does not read a book, she does not wear ear buds, she does not talk on a phone. She just lets the ocean roar at her feet. Today she gets a bit of a show, as a huge pelican swoops back and forth over shallow surf thirty feet from her face.

At dusk a slightly stooped white-haired man hobbles across tawny sand toward aqua swells reflecting a crepuscular wash of pale pink. Each stiff-legged, flat-footed step seems carefully thought out. I am surprised to see him attempting a beach walk with a tripod cane. His dark street shoes, white socks, Bermuda shorts, and blue shirt buttoned to collar and wrists suggest he doesn’t often take beach walks. Ever so slowly he makes it across dune and down to water’s edge. He heads south about 500 feet and stops. He turns around, looks toward our building for a long time. Is he memorizing its three yellow stories and Mansard roof? My dad had Alzheimer’s, so I wonder, and I decide to keep an eye on this dear man. Leading with his cane firmly planted before each step, he heads back north along water’s edge. His silver cane flashes in fading sunlight like a metal detector’s handle.

He stops a few times and turns toward our building. Is he looking for a familiar face on a balcony? Does he remember the building? He hesitates. Is he catching his breath? Finally he heads over the dune toward our building. Cane. Step. Step. Cane. Step. Step. At the bottom of the stairs, I lose sight of him behind overgrown sea grape bushes. Minutes pass. I am about ready to don shoes and go help him up the stairs when his white head appears above the sea grapes. He hobbles to a chair on the deck and plops down. A younger lady meets him on the deck and sits in an adjoining chair. I feel relief that he made it and very proud of him for not letting age and infirmity prevent him from enjoying the beach.

Although we boomers do need to adjust expectations as we age, I realize from my beach musings that grabbing for life’s gusto is still possible—it just might look different and happen a bit slower. And to punctuate this sentence, I will add that my first visit to the gym after returning from Florida, a gray-haired member clomps her walker over to a recumbent bicycle machine, and as she pedals, she sings one sweet song after another—yes, in public.

[Photos in this post are by Robert Hoppe.]

1 comment:

BrightenedBoy said...

Youth is a beautiful thing, isn't it? I will turn 29 the month after next, and only this year has it dawned on me (in a non-abstract way) that my days have a limit. That they end. That, while I'm young now, the day will come when I am not. It was easier to forget that at 21.

Your powers of observation are impressive. And your exhortation to seize life feels particularly relevant just now.