Good Grief Charlie Brown

Yesterday I spent a little time looking for a trip. I’ve been — with a couple short jaunts up to Colorado Springs — in the San Luis Valley for the past three years. Yeah. One reason, of course, has been Covid. The other money. Boarding dogs isn’t cheap. A lot of people choose not to have pets because they want the freedom to travel. I guess I’ve done the converse.

In the process of looking for a trip, I did, of course, find a couple. Then I read the fine print and some of it concerned me. Even thought they are well-organized group tours for “seniors,” they have this:

Tour pacing & mobility

  • You will walk for at least 2 hours daily across moderately uneven terrain, including paved roads and unpaved trails, with some hills and stairs.
  • Travelers should be healthy enough to participate in all included walks without assistance. Adding optional excursions may increase the total amount of walking on your tour.
  • You should feel comfortable managing your own baggage at times, as well as getting in and out of boats and ferries.
  • Go Ahead Tours and the Tour Director who accompanies your group are unable to provide special, individual mobility assistance to travelers on tour. The responsibility of the Tour Director is to ensure the group as a whole enjoys a relaxing and informative journey, and he or she cannot be relied upon to provide ongoing, individualized assistance to any one traveler.
  • If you have any mobility concerns or physical restrictions, please contact our Customer Experience Team.

I thought about this for a while. Well, I’m still thinking about it. My walking problems aren’t a matter of endurance. I can’t define exactly what they are. I think it’s the reality that artificial joints just don’t work like the joints we’re born with and yeah, I have a messed up knee which adds to awkwardness when I’m tired. Getting in and out of a tour bus wouldn’t be easy for me. Walking on uneven terrain? That’s fine.

When my first hip went south almost 20 years ago now, I grieved that loss as if it were a person because it was a person. The person was me, the person I’d always been, the person through whose eyes I saw the world. The abilities taken for granted (and enjoyed by this person!) defined a big part of my identity. “I’m not sure who I am, but I can go four miles in an hour in the mountains.” Nothing else worked. My romances didn’t work. I never got tenure so I worked as a lecturer at three schools, one of which, true, gave me three year contracts. No big publisher wanted my books or stories but dammit! I could go four miles an hour in the mountains. And then, suddenly — it was pretty sudden — I was doing 12 miles with a kid from one of my classes, a collegiate athlete, a body-builder who hiked with me every weekend for his aerobic training — and I was in excruciating pain several times, and had to stop. “I don’t know what’s going on,” I said to him.

“It’s OK. We all get injured.” He sat down on a log and took a drink from his water bottle. “Stretch for a while. We can rest.”

I put a hand out to balance beside a tree and did a few hamstring stretches until I felt better, a little loser in my hip joint. Back in those days, I got massages regularly and my masseuse had noticed there was no space in my hip joint. She diagnosed it a year before it began to hurt and three years before my (incompetent) doc sent me for a hip X-ray.

All my life until then — from childhood — if something went wrong at home, at school, anywhere, I could go for a good run and regain my balance. All that running led to my being a very fast young girl, and my coach wanted to send me to Olympic Training Camp when I was 13 or 14.

Running was my ONE thing, and suddenly it was gone forever.

We think of grief as the emotion we feel when we lose people (and animals) we care about, but we can also grieve parts of ourselves, abilities, independence, beauty, potential. I don’t know that we “recover” from grief; I think we just learn to live with the loss. There’s a lot of stuff about “recovery” and the “lessons we learn” all that — yesterday I read in one of the little literary anthologies published in the Valley every spring how humans learn from pain. The story — an anecdote about losing a beloved dog — said that animals don’t have this ability (I disagree…) and it’s the ability humans have to learn from pain that makes grief redemptive. I’m not sure grief is exactly “redemptive,” but continuing one’s life after a major loss is definitely another fucking growth opportunity.

As a positive person (positive meaning concerned with the possible) I looked around for help in redefining myself and existence without the ONE THING I could do. Direction was everywhere. Like the night I got the X-ray results (finally) in 2006 I leashed my sainted Lily T. Wolf and we went out in the darkness to walk up the road. The road that passed my house in Descanso, California, didn’t have much traffic, especially at night, so it was a quiet walk. The stars shone in the moonless sky. At the end of the road was a pasture with several red horses. As we approached their fence I heard them all move toward me. I walked over to the fence and found five soft horse noses reaching for me. I’d walked down this road many times and the horses had never lifted their heads.

I stroked their noses and any other parts of their heads and necks I could reach. They leaned over the fence to touch noses with Lily. As I walked along the fence, they followed me. In the next pasture, the horses there did the same thing. I must have petted ten horses that night.

The next day, on my way home from school, I bought a big bag of carrots and returned to the horses. They all gathered at the fence and I noticed that ALL of them were old, arthritic, with swollen joints. Many walked slowly favoring a sore leg. One horse couldn’t chew the carrot so I chewed it for her and gave it to her on the palm of my hand. I stayed with the horses for a long time and cried. A few months later the horses were gone. Glue? Dog food? I don’t know, but for me the time they spent with me had been a miracle.

I am 100% convinced they knew everything that was going on inside my heart and saw me as a fellow traveler.

I decided then that everything I would need to cope with this major loss of self would appear somehow. I just had to be open to it. I was about to enter a new world with a yet undiscovered self.

When you get a hip prosthesis the advertising promises all kinds of things. You see guys skiing moguls on them, running on them, all kinds of things which are indeed possible. But there is the question the ads don’t tell you about which is, “Should you?” The answer there is that depends on how often you are willing to go under the knife. One of the things I’ve learned from this is that the surgery is nothing. You’re knocked out. Rehab is long, and, though it’s rewarding because the pain is gone, there are always ancillary annoyances like kicking opioid pain killers and picking up your life where it was before. After my second hip (I have prostheses in both hips) I got cross country skis which proved to be the ONE true compensation for not running, but I don’t have any friends who X-country ski so I’m limited where I can go. I’m willing to go anywhere by myself, but I’m also not foolish. I know I can get hurt or stuck or godnose, so… Anyway, I don’t know anyone who wants to do it as much as I do. It’s always something. Like no snow…. Grrrrrrr…

I haven’t gotten over the loss. I doubt I ever will and reading “fine print” like that I read last night about mobility? The bottom line is I’m still walking and I have a big white dog who understands me and a little black dog who is the realization of joie de vivre when we’re out there doing whatever it is we do on that gravel road in the magnificent light, surrounded by mountains.

The featured photo is the pasture and two of the red horses. You can see how one of them is standing (back horse) with her leg lifted off the ground. The mountain is Cuyamaca Peak. The photo is taken from the exact spot where Lily and I spent time with the red horses. The hills behind the horses burned in the Cedar Fire a couple years before I took this photo.

33 thoughts on “Good Grief Charlie Brown

  1. Martha, this is a beautiful post. The tour for seniors; however, is problematic for me. What age do they consider ‘senior’? So who they are advertising for are seniors with absolutely no physical problems at all, because if you have any, they have absolved themselves from allowing you to enjoy the ride. Wow. Way to go, tour people.

    • Pretty much. And, while the destinations are great, it’s only 11 days which means it would be hurried and superficial at best. I now appreciate the idea of a planned tour because I’m not running after Italian trains any more, but this is just — I dunno. It’s a “bucket-list” kind of thing and I don’t have a bucket list. As I’ve pondered all this I realized that there is no place within my reach that I want to visit. I have been there and that’s why Bear, Teddy and I are not going anywhere. It’s not that I’m not restless; it’s that when I think about things like TSA, two metal hips, Covid restrictions, lists like this tour company put out it just isn’t worth it to leave my beautiful world. Still, I would really like to see Pompeii and Patagonia in real life. I think I might have evolved into a cruise person. 😀

  2. There are a couple of trips I would love to have taken — one of which is beyond my physical reach at this point, and the other soon will be as well. At first, I was unhappy about this, then I became resigned to the fact that I am older than I once was, and that I may never get to the Galapagos Islands or to Costa Rica. I am currently looking forward to making the trip to Santa Barbara once more — with more than a little concern about driving the freeways for 3-4 hours!

    • My mother-in-law (Good X) went to Galapagos when she was 80. I think it all depends on ability and motivation and that was LONG before 2001 when air travel turned into air torture. I completely understand the reluctance to hit the freeway for 3 or 4 hours. I don’t want to do that, either, and, at the moment (because I left the back hatch door on Bella open and tried to drive into the garage) I can’t. I have to get that brake light fixed first. I’m starting to think that being older implies something Goethe wrote about a lot and I never understood and that is renunciation. The other two thirds of that is resignation and acceptance.

  3. Lois beat me to it – “beautiful” was the word I had in mind. I loved the story about the horses and it made me miss my days as a “barn dad”, when I spent every Monday hanging out with horses. In joint replacement (or any other surgery), the surgeon has the easy job. A couple of hours and it’s “fixed” – no longer their problem. That’s when the hard work starts.

  4. I’m running into the same problem in my knees. They are much more delicate than they were when I was young. They need to be replaced because the cartilage is mostly gone but I was able to hike on the thanks to cortisone shots and simply dealing with the pain. Now I have a torn ACL in my right knee. It is more serious than the arthritis.

    Part of me thinks my hiking days are over. It is depressing. There is nothing to replace it.

  5. I can understand the desire to go and balancing that with the realities of physical limitations. Yes, you are still walking and that matters in a big way.

  6. That’s an interesting “senior” tour. It sounds like a small subset of those over a certain age (and they want to avoid liability for anything going wrong…). Hopefully the fine print is visible enough for those of us with vision issues! Grieving for who we used to be – yes, I agree. Well, I grieve for the days when I wasn’t invisible in the world. Aging does that.
    Wonderful post. Those horses…wow.

    • I think the invisibility thing for me is in medicine. Docs kind of look at you and go, “Well, she’s had a good run,” and are a lot less frantic about fixing you (unless it’s a joint replacement) than they were when one is young and “productive.” That was my experience in the falling thing. Really nobody cared or saw it as a problem — not my doc, not the physical therapists, they all operated on a set of assumptions that they never tested. But, it can go the other way with assumptions, like what happened back in my 50s when my doc said I was “too young” for osteoarthritis and didn’t order an X-ray leaving me three more years of extreme pain and a degenerating hip.

      The “fine print” in that travel company’s website — yeah, I think you’re right. It’s to make sure that they don’t end up liable. Anyway, they won’t get my business even though I’m probably able enough.

      More and more I’m getting the idea — which I had when I was younger — anything I want to do is totally up to me. I’m not going to find co-conspirators except Bear and Teddy.

      • Yes, I see it in medical care too. Am I worth saving (so to speak). Do I have enough years left to make it worth anyone’s while to try. It is discouraging and often depressing. The problem can be if/when we internalize those kinds of messages. Many older people do.

        • Sometime during the height (or one of the heights) of the pandemic I “left” the world. I just decided on some quiet level that it’s a bullshit place and all I can really expect is bullshit, broad generalizations, factionalism and blindness. Maybe that’s cynical, but maybe it’s accurate. I don’t really know.

          Naturally, I still engage, but not at all in the way I did before. I don’t even expect my friends to ‘get’ me. I figure the best I can do is be nice to people and enjoy my life. It has been a very very very strange shift and I wonder sometimes if this is actually the way the world IS and I got it wrong all this time. I don’t know. The thing that flipped the switch was anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers saying it didn’t matter if elderly people got the virus and died. They are/were near death anyway. I remember thinking, “I gave my life to you in the classroom and this is who you turned out to be? I’m outta’ here.” 😀

  7. There is so much to think about here in your post and comments. It’s true that aging brings real grief over accumulating losses from our younger selves. I suspect it is wise to acknowledge that. Doris Carnevali. (100) talks with her body parts and thanks them for good service and for still doing their best ; I hope to emulate her in that. I’m also learning to love where I am instead of yearning for travel. Your approach makes realistic sense to me to. But how superficial are most descriptions of old age that filter through to us as we try to grow old for the first time in our lives!

    • You are so right! There are so many problems with our society’s view of old age; it ignores that each person spends his/her lifetime (however long that is) paying for the right to be old! Some guy 20 years ago said, “I’d love to see a photo of you when you were young. I bet you were beautiful”

      I looked at him and thought, “Well, Sweet Cheeks, I paid for THIS face with my whole LIFE and I’m probably not speaking to you again.” The idiot thought he was paying me a compliment! Then I went to hear Iggy Pop who was amazing and even older than I.

      I thank my hands every morning and kiss them. I don’t know why, but it seems like they have been and are good friends to me. ❤ My dad was disabled with MS and died at 45. When I was in my early 40s I realized I was embarking on the stage(s) of life he didn't get the chance to live. I felt that I had the opportunity to do something remarkable with what seemed in a way to be a great boon of time.

      I'm OK now with not being able to run but it was really hard (physically painful and mentally confusing) to go through those years of deteriorating abilities. I have had a good teacher (a dog) and fate (destiny? providence?) brought me to the best possible place for me to be now. I am very very very fortunate. As for travel? I realized in this short interval that I just think I SHOULD want to; I don't really want to. In going through old journals I discovered drawings I did 20 years ago of THIS place and I had never seen it. I'm where I'm supposed to be. ❤

      • I laughed, I sighed over your reply. In a poem I say, ” old age is your reward / but you have to earn it / you have to put in the hours / you have to learn it…” And I’m going to give my hands a good morning kiss and thank you from now on. Lovely habit. Thank you for your rare honesty.

        • I had a friend, colleague, years ago who had a very elderly mother whom he wheeled around in an elegant old fashioned wheel-chair. At the end of her life, well into her 90s, she only said two words — Things were either “great!” or they were “baloney.” 😀

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