The old man looked sharp today, a far cry from his appointment three months ago.
His hair, disheveled in October, newly coiffed, not a strand out of place. Autumn’s sweat suit upgraded as well: buttoned-down collar, cardigan, neatly pressed wool trousers and Oxfords polished just so.
Must be off to a funeral from here I sadly surmised; the only place I see people dressed up any more is at funeral homes.
But on further study there was nothing of mourning about him this afternoon. He sat not with a slouch but erect. Above his mask the eyes betrayed no sorrowful glaze but something else entirely.
Was it? Yes! Ho, ho! A glint of mischievous energy usually displayed only by those on top of their game, or those who hold a secret.
“Don’t you clean up nicely?” I started.
Before I could further engage, he interjected eagerly, “I have something to show you!”
Without another word the 84 year old rose to full height, his walker creaking quietly from the strain, and extended to me a small piece of paper the size of an index card, instantly recognizable to me.
“I got it!” he beamed in a way that shined even through the cloth covering the lower half of his face.
“What’s this, your report card?” I asked in feigned ignorance.
“Nah, my COVID vaccine, Doc… I got my first shot last week!” he exclaimed while shuffling his feet in what must have been the softest soft shoe this side of old Vaudeville.
I have missed the elderly this past year — their wit, wisdom and grace. Their stoicism, their phlegm and their candor as well. I have learned so very much from them over the decades.
Before going further, I suppose I should define what I mean by “elderly.” Most of us define “old age” as whatever our current age is plus 20 years. At 54 I am neither young nor aged, but can vaguely remember the former and see clear hints of the latter from my vantage. Traditionally, our government defines “elderly” as those 65 and above, but that’s too close to comfort so I’ll use 75 and older.
Though I have gratefully seen older folks returning to my clinic over the past several months, I miss seeing them out and about — at the grocery, the YMCA, at the high school basketball games, on their front porches.
No one has been spared but it seems to me the elderly have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s misery. Objective morbidity and mortality statistics clearly bear this out. But I would argue that subjectively, the aged have also experienced most of the isolation, the anxiety and the helplessness.
A generation born and raised with the traditional customs of face-to-face communication is not as facile with electronic communication as are younger demographics. The loss of true interpersonal discourse is felt acutely and deeply.
Alone at home. Alone in a nursing facility. Away from family, many missing grandchildren in particular. Disconnected from tradition, for many church especially. A solitary life. Too often a solitary passing.
Unavoidable, necessary restrictions for sure but leading to pain and despair nonetheless. Inescapable for most of 2020 and for much of 2021 yet to come.
It is one thing for the relatively young to speak wistfully of life normalizing in several months to a few years, but for those with less sand remaining in the top of the hourglass such talk can prove downright demoralizing.
Without question, every individual should carefully consider the matter before choosing to take or decline vaccination. Everyone’s circumstances and beliefs are different and I firmly hold that it is ultimately a matter of personal choice.
Our oldest brethren and sistren, though not unanimously, have in large numbers embraced vaccination as a means to break the back of “the corona.” They do so not out of desperation nor naiveté, but rather from a collective memory of a life before vaccines were available. These folks lived through the scourges of measles and polio and tetanus, to name but a few. Diseases that are not ancient history but that were and are real, that stalked them in childhood, culling family and friends from their midst.
They have suffered greatly yet their faith endures. They have hope for the future, not as a nebulous concept but concretely, hope for their very personal future. Their love of life is undiminished.
Thus faith, hope and love abide.
Faith, hope and love — the essential elements of optimism.
And so, my well-dressed, well-groomed patient was not on his way to a funeral. He simply spruced himself up for our visit. He was, in his words, “Tired of laying around like a bum, a prisoner.”
I told him that his appearance this day and the renewed energy I’ve seen in so many of his cohort lately put me in mind of the 1985 movie “Cocoon.” In case you haven’t seen it I highly recommend this entertaining story of some retirement village friends discovering a “fountain of youth” of sorts.
One of my favorite scenes might be loosely applicable to utilizing an emergency-approved vaccine to escape a pandemic. One of the group, reluctant to join the others on their escapades, accuses them of cheating nature. “Well, I’ll tell ya,” his friend replies, “with the way nature’s been cheating us, I don’t mind cheating her a little.”
“I can’t remember the last time I felt this good,” my patient exhaled, proudly looking at his vaccination card.
We all need a moment to exhale.
Please, do so.
Then breathe deeply of this moment’s optimism.
May its intoxication carry us forth to better days.