I go on vacation next week. Usually I have solid plans for vacations, but this time my plan is to pretend I'm retired. That's all. It's kind of a dream of mine, retirement. At the age of 56, situated where I am right now, taking into account all of my financial, career, and health prospects, I can safely expect to retire sometime within the next 30 years. Maybe 30 years from this very day, who knows? The boss will walk over to the ditch I'm digging, rap several times on my hardhat to get my attention and shout loudly into the ear that still has 30 percent hearing, "Schprock, we don't need you anymore! Pack up and go home!" Then I'll drag my weary, gnarled body out of the hole I dug, trudge home, warm up a can of minestrone soup, and welcome in the golden years knowing there's at least one more hole meant for me yet.
A part of me still thinks I'm a kid. In my mind, I'm something like 20 or 21. And outwardly I'm not in bad shape for a person of my advanced years. I'm still skinny, in decent shape, I have hair and that hair hasn't a speck of grey in it. People assume that I'm younger than I am. But I am 56. On March 1st of this year, I had a procedure done to my heart called ablation to correct a condition known as atrial fibrillation, which is an irregular heartbeat that comes and goes. I can actually trace this condition back to when I was 19 or 20 and I assumed at the time that this funny thing my chest was doing was brought on by smoking cigarettes, so I used that assumption as motivation to quit smoking. I did manage to quit smoking (no easy task) but my heart still got a little jumpy from time to time. As I got older, the episodes became more frequent and lasted longer. Finally, in my early 40s, I saw a doctor about it during a stretch when the a-fib went on for about three days.
There are drugs that can control a-fib, but not without side effects, so I opted instead to simply live with it. You may wonder what a-fib feels like. Try doing this: walk out to your car, pop open the hood, disconnect one spark plug wire and start the engine. That's what it feels like. Or imagine this: a washing machine with an oversized, unbalanced load whipping violently around during the spin cycle going thump! thump! thump! as the machine traces a drunken dance step across the laundry room floor.
I had the ablation done in Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. My surgeon expected the procedure to take three to four hours but it wound up taking six. I wasn't conscious during any of it, and believe me, six hours under general anesthesia can take its toll. I entered the hospital a healthy man capable of pedaling a bicycle more than 100 miles. I left a weak and shuffling shell of myself. When they said it required an overnight stay in the hospital and then taking it easy for a week, I thought, how hard could it be? Ha! I think now to myself. Ha ha!
A very unfortunate side effect resulting from the operation was nerve damage to my lower legs. The surgeon had no idea how it happened and didn't seem to want to talk about it, perhaps sensing a malpractice suit. When I woke up, which happened in the middle of a big rush with the surgical team yanking tubes out of me while whisking me off into the recovery room, I noticed that my feet and calves felt numb. After a brief struggle, I got my feet to work, making them go up and down and wiggling my toes and so on, but the numbness persisted . . . to this very day. Not nearly so bad now, but I still haven't regained 100 percent control of my legs.
The numbness and the constant low-grade pain that set in when the numbness faded is called neuropathy. That's what a nurse practitioner told me it was when she prescribed Neurontin (or "nerve pills," as I liked to call them) and told me to start wearing old man-style compression socks. I also had to sit with my legs elevated higher than my heart three times a day for 20 minutes at a time. But the pain seemed never to cease, especially at night making sleeping difficult. When I walked, it felt like my socks were made of Brillo and that the skin of my feet was systematically abrading away. I knew, and could tell myself with confidence, that this was simply my screwed-up nerve endings sending false information to a brain that was apparently ready to believe anything. Telling myself that did me no good whatsoever.
In time the pain stopped and I could do just about everything except run. Running was, and still is, out. I mean, I can run after a fashion, but my feet simply will not carry out my instructions as I would like. And then . . . and then! . . . I stepped on a tree root the wrong way in early August. That messed up my left foot. In time my left foot healed, but then my right foot, which has never come anywhere close to a tree root, is now experiencing the same sprained symptoms my left foot did. Very strange. My doctor will tell me that I'm full of shit, she'll tell me it's a compensatory injury from when my left foot was sore, but I feel sure this is all somehow tied in with the nerve damage.
So I'm old. I'm banged up. I walk with a slight limp. But I keep on plugging.
Years ago, back when I jogged a three-mile route in the early mornings, I frequently came across an elderly woman watering her front lawn with a hose. In the warm weather she wore a loose-fitting house dress with sneakers and floppy white socks, and had her hair up in curlers and often sported a smoldering cigarette hanging from scowling lips. I sensed defiance and pugnaciousness and an unwillingness to put up with any bullshit, and she looked like she could take me out with one punch or fall on a live grenade and survive the blast. Life had made her wizened and hard and indestructible, or so it seemed to me. I never spoke to her, but I always noticed her, and, as is my wont, I made up a nickname for her, which was "Tough Old Broad," eventually shortening it to "TOB." It then occurred to me that she couldn't be the only TOB out there, that there must be TOBs everywhere, and that TOBs shouldn't be restricted to women either, but this honor could apply to men as well, whom I dubbed "Tough Old Bastards."
And what is a Tough Old Bastard? A good poster boy might be Clint Eastwood, only not Republican National Convention Clint, but Gran Torino Clint. Old but tough, tougher than boot leather, the vital forces still strong, still has it all together, maybe even more together than the TOBs-in-training you see in Viagra commercials. He's seen it all, done it all, so don't mess with him.
Someday I'd like to be a Tough Old Bastard. I'm not old enough yet, nor am I tough enough, but my aspirations lie in this direction. Tough Old Bastards laugh off aches and pains, find ways to get around the obstacles age throws at you. They know how to do things old school. You put a TOB and some fresh-faced 40-year-old on a desert island equipping each with a can opener, a plastic coffee stirrer and a dented El Dorado hubcap and guess who makes it out alive? Do you even need to guess? Tough Old Bastards make the younger guys feel somehow inadequate without them ever knowing quite why. But I know why. It's because they're tough, they're old, and they're bastards!