"It's not for sissies," saith my father-in-law, who is 93, sharp as a tack, but physically somewhat less than sound. He means old age, of course. I dare not complain, almost 30 years younger. Yet, I creak when I get out of bed, and I get out of bed too often, often in the middle of the night, in fact, to perform certain bodily functions that won't wait 'til morning.
More on that later.
Last week, in California, a 26-year-old and I rolled up to a retirement home to meet a woman who worked in the office. "I spend all-together too much time at these places," I told him, as we parked the car. My wife and I had just returned from a similar institution in Wisconsin, where my mother lives, and my father-in-law is a resident just down the road from our place. "I know them too well," I said.
"You know," he told me, the garish effects of ripe youth all over him, "places like this always look like fun--like dorm life all over again."
"It's not like dorm life," I told him, affecting a tone from the grave. "It's not at all like dorm life, believe me."
Anyway, back to bodily functions, too many of them. Just one of my trepidations in moving to a new house was negotiating the path to the porcelain in deep and utter darkness. After all, we live in the country, where one of the blessings is a Milky Way so pronounced it looks like a highway in the night sky. But it is the country, and, good night!--it's dark outside, very dark.
What's more, our new bedroom is approximately half the size of the one we've slept for the last thirty years, and the path from my side of the bed--and how is it things like "my side of the bed" get written in stone anyway?--is a pathway so narrow I've got to walk it sideways. Couple that with a multi-colored toenail two months from falling off, a big toe so sensitive that even a gentle rap makes me wish for death--and we've got trouble in River City, which is to say Alton, even though we live, you might say, just outside the suburbs.
I could, of course, hold it, my water that is--that is, if I were Superman. But I'm not, and I'm in my sixties, and when I wake up--and I do--it's because the water's on and running and I'd better find a way to jiffy off to the porcelain.
Here's the good news. I'm getting there. It's dark as night in our bedroom of course, because my wife, who grew up on a farm, thinks that somewhere in Deuteronomy the Bible says that man and woman shalt sleep only in utter darkness. My side of the bed--I'm not envious either--is right next to this old house's chimney, so there's a crease in the wall where the dark wood paneling angles around the brick. Like a handle. Sheer blessing.
First step?--reach for that crease and pull yourself up and out. I got it. Then, like a surfer, keep your left hand up along that paneling until you can reach into the depth of night and locate the sharp and hard edge of the dresser, right there at the foot of the bed (it's not a massive bedroom). Don't ram that sore toe into the dresser or howling will wake your wife who, in her miasma, will dial 911--after all, you just had a stroke.
Now, slide your hands along the edge of the bureau until it ends, then take a sharp right, walk straight ahead, reaching for the door handle. Beware! the door may be closed. It's that dark.
What I'm saying is, we've been in this house now since July, and I think I got the path marked in my psyche. The truth?--I don't even think about it anymore. I know the steps, the movements, maybe not as well as I knew them in the old house (which was in town and vastly less midnight-ish), but I've got 'em. Turn left at the bedroom door and the barn light offers some relief through the kitchen window and, just a few steps west, the bathroom window as well. It's become a well-worn path.
Don't know why, but I was thinking about New Mexico last night while doing this delicate dance to the john, because here and there in Chaco Canyon, where the sandstone is sheer, hand and toe holds still march straight up walls so high it takes your breath away just imagining how on earth the Anasazi ever, ever could scale 'em. I'm told there are toe holds on Zuni Mountain too, marking the paths the people took to escape the Conquistadors who were interested only in gold and rape and pillage.
Those paths are marked forever in the face of the rock, the path to safety, the path to life itself.
That's what I was thinking while inching on my way along to the toilet.
Okay, maybe it's not the same thing. Don't blame me. I was only half awake and generally not subject to delusions of grandeur.
But neither is old age anything at all like the dorm, dang it.
At least I made it.