Grass

April 12, 2021

The sun now rises high and warm nearly everywhere, making the flowers and plants explode from the soil to paint the land with the brilliance of the season. As I’m sure some poet has said, Spring breathes life into the living. Walking through parks, any parks, or driving through towns and cities, any town or city, and inhaling the delicate aromas of Spring lightens the heart of every human person. The sensations may seem superficial or trivial in the face of deeper concerns, they may be short-lived, but they are real and undeniable.

What also is undeniable is the work about it. Spring in its loveliness is a signal to the suburbanites, or many of them, to head to Home Depot and Lowe’s and stand in line to buy new tools, seed, nursery-raised plants, and fertilizer, and deploy for the lawn wars. A lush spread of grass outside your front door is why you moved to the burbs, isn’t it?

I resigned from most lawn duty a couple of years ago. Other than mowing my modest front-yard plot to keep the neighbors happy, I gave up caring what it looked like. For years earlier I laid down new seed in the spring and straw on top of the seed to keep it from washing away, then watched the crabgrass and other stuff devour it by mid-July.

You can avoid that by hiring a lawn-care company to tend your patch of green, meaning seed, fertilize, mow, and snip it. Our Virginia neighbor across the street does just that. Once a week for half the year, around 8 AM, a team of lawn manicurists arrives in a pickup truck, wheel out their giant sit-down mowers, and inside of 15 minutes blast neat new swaths in her lawn. Then they head to the next customer. It’s a volume business, after all. We understood. I never asked her what it cost, whatever it was, it was more than I wanted to pay. Her lawn was beautiful. Ours resembled a World War I battlefield.

Every man who slaves away at his lawn knows what those who don’t also know: lawn care can be addictive, like sugar or caffeine or worse things. Nightmares are made of the sums of money otherwise sane adults allocate to seed, “pre-emergent” herbicides, lime, and the various seasonal strains of fertilizer. Isn’t it necessary, the homeowner asks himself, to use all of them? In their season? Scott, Vigoro, Pennington, and other corporate giants rule their own aisles of the hardware stores. That’s the software, then there’s hardware: the spreaders, mowers, sprinklers (or in-ground sprinkler systems), and wheelbarrels; the power tools—blowers, vacuums, clippers, trimmers; and the hand tools: grass rakes, thatch rakes, leaf rakes, hoses, edgers, weeders, hoes, spades, shovels, pitchforks.

I owned all those things.

A homeowner’s desire to keep his place presentable exerts powerful pressure to acquire a lawn-care warehouse. The thick green lawn is a component of everything else. You have to spend money, after all, on painting, powerwashing, repairing brick facings, vinyl siding, and shutters, cleaning windows and replacing broken ones, cleaning gutters, and so on, with the understandable goal of not letting your house look run down or abandoned. Because the grass or other vegetation that fills the space between the front door and the sidewalk is alive, it requires constant attention. The lawn-care compulsion grows (heh-heh) from that. Hence the lawnmower, for starters. Then the rest.

My recovery started with failure. The soil on our property was naturally poor. Without commercial fertilizer and hours of watering—positioning a sprinkler or spraying with a hose—the expensive grass seed I planted grew feebly, then died. Eventually I decided the weeds that replaced it were green enough. Mowing gave us a minimalist level of suburban acceptability. That was the front. The backyard I surrendered completely. Because it was a steep hill and not visible from the street, when I got sick I quit even occasionally trimming it and handed it over to the weeds. Here, nature was kind. The chickweed, etc., grew sparsely and slowly, giving us the gentle, calming look of a meadow or pasture.

I braced myself for lawn care here, at the new place. We now face a new enemy, a Homeowners Association (HOA) which, in its rulebook, demands lawn accountability. The seller, Miss Jean, bequeathed us a rake, a hoe, a couple of spades. But since we gave away our entire lawn-care arsenal, including the mower, we’re unarmed.

Then I noticed something. All the lawns in the neighborhood look brown and neglected. Unlike our Virginia neighbors, nobody here, even in mid-April, was frantically fertilizing, seeding, aerating, trimming. The thick, heat-resistant zoysia that predominates in local lawns has not yet stirred to green. Its tough, wirelike clumps seem to limit weed growth to dandelions, which dapple our front lawn with their yellow flowers and fluffy seed pods. Once established, they never go away short of a massive herbicide assault.

Lowe’s is teeming with anxious customers who know the territory better than me.  But I called off shopping for lawn tools.

When I moved from Jersey to Nashville in 1975, I took some time getting used to certain Southern peculiarities, even after marrying into a Southern family. The “Lost Cause” thing never worked for me, although it’s still alive and well in Tennessee and in South Carolina. But the slower, more genteel pace hereabouts is okay for us now, as we figure out things more complicated than lawn care. But lawn care will still matter. Ask the HOA.

Triduum

April 5, 2021

Winter hung on. We stumbled through the move from the apartment to the new house with fewer troubles than some people experience, nothing valuable was wrecked, the power was turned on as scheduled, the neighbors didn’t stand on the sidewalk staring. Not that I’d mind. But then we have no sidewalk. Suddenly it was Easter Week. 

We “attended” Mass on Palm Sunday by watching it on the internet. Easter called us to show up. Last year the churches were shut by covid-19. We tried to set aside the dark memory of the year of pandemic agony. We turned to the eternal Easter message: love, humility, compassion, mercy, hope, the weapons that will defeat evil that returns again and again: 550,000 souls lost to a microbe, a season of political mendacity, spasms of incomprehensible violence.

Hope is the beginning. We pressed forward tinkering with our new living space, prospecting through the garageful of boxes we hauled from the apartment, and before that to the apartment from the Virginia house. We met the neighbor across the street, who welcomed us in her soothing, lilting, regional twang. She grew up near here, she said. She mentioned she long has admired the Japanese maple in our front yard. I turned and looked at it, the branches were bare, but I thought I could see tiny buds. That’s something, I thought.

I kept puttering. The light bulbs in the three-lamp bathroom fixture had been mysteriously snapped off at their sockets; the home inspection missed it. I was able to extract them with pliers after getting a scary electrical jolt that made me yell and throw the pliers up in the air. I realized then I should have turned off the switch.

I looked at the neighbors’ yards to the east, west, and south, saw no one. Not a soul. I hung a few pictures and raked the backyard weeds. I tried hooking up the internet, it didn’t work. I called the company, the fellow checked the account and found the internet had not been connected in the house since 2013. Another message from our seller, the enigmatic Miss Jean. She had decided she didn’t need it. Didn’t need it, so didn’t want it.

Then we left the chores on Holy Thursday, start of the Triduum. We struggled to grasp the truth of the miracle, perhaps this year as much mystery as miracle.  Easter and Passover lift us from grief. The Gospel writers stand against the onslaught of human tragedy, advancing the message of the Resurrection, the central event of history. This year, from John:

“Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.”

We settled in, along with the complicated memories. I owned up to it: we left good people and places that still hold me. On moving day last week I stood in the empty apartment where we lay our heads for five rootless months and wondered again at the choices that landed us in this compact little house with the squared-off property lines in a two-street subdivision, on the fringe of a city we barely know. Then I shook my head and dropped the retrospectives, which now come so easily. We pushed forward to the next things, the things that matter now.  

We worked at anchoring ourselves: changing addresses, visiting the tax office and the Motor Vehicle Department. Sickness took over: appointments, tests, surgery and recovery, more appointments, more tests. In November, in an auditorium at the downtown parish, we watched Mass on a video screen. We visited the pastor before the operation, he helped me through it. A Pentecostal minister stopped by my hospital room for a chat and a prayer, he submitted a report on his visit to the hospital chiefs. I hoped they approved.  

The evangelical Christian church next door to the apartment sported giant banners: “Overcome the Past,” and “You Belong Here.” The first presumably alluded to South Carolina’s segregationist history. The second was a pitch. They, like their competitors, planned major services this weekend, visitors welcome.

People raced back to the churches, as they stampede back to bars and restaurants. Masks are disappearing, hugs and backslaps are everywhere, celebrating the Savior’s hard work in making things “normal” again. It looks that way. Millions now can brag of having at least one vaccine shot. Chocolate bunnies and jellybeans are back on the shelves. Easter once again brought out the pretty dresses and stylish hats.

Dark clouds rushed in on us midweek, bringing chill and a hard rain. The feds are warning of the spread of covid variants. People are getting sick again.

We showed up for Mass with masks. We thought about those half-million now gone, their families, and all the rest: the victims of cancer and mass shootings.  The choir wasn’t there but the prayers were those of past years, of every year. We knelt and witnessed the recreation of the sacrifice, the prayers of the faithful, the solemnity of the Season, the return of hope. We looked ahead to Spring.

Reunion

March 29, 2021

Chris was the first to pass me, halfway up the Black Rock trail. Kirk and Paul followed. Bruce and Kevin were farther ahead, but they started earlier. Bruce and Kevin and I were in the first wave, jumping off in darkness to march up that first ascent, the first of many, many ascents on the “Assault on Black Rock” course.

It was Paul’s idea to converge on Sylva, in western North Carolina last weekend, the point being more the reunion of the old THuG running group than the Black Rock mountain climb event. He splits his time between Asheville and Wilmington, near Kirk’s new home. Kevin came up from Florida, Bruce from South Carolina’s Low Country, and I made the leisurely drive up from Greenville. We all registered, along with 125 others. Paul forwarded the course map. I studied it. Looks hard, I thought.

I got to Waynesville, 30 miles west of Asheville on Friday, the day before the run, driving through chilly drizzle with the clouds low over the Smokies. I found the hotel then, with the afternoon free, drove the 15 miles to the start just outside Sylva. I walked a quarter-mile up the trail. This will be very hard, I thought.

That night we got together for dinner and a chance to catch up. All of us but Chris had moved away from northern Virginia, first Paul, then Bruce, Kevin, me, then Kirk. Chris talked about seeing bears on Virginia trials, Paul had his colorful anecdotes. I’ve seen lots of bears, the last now three years ago. I’ve been away from the mountains that long.

In the 6:00 AM darkness at the hotel, the mountain chill penetrated; in the low 30s, I guessed. I pulled on my thermal jacket, but it stretched the straps of my hydration pack. For a seven-mile course most runners would carry a single water bottle, but the docs tell me to drink three liters every day. I needed the pack. I shucked the jacket.

As I gained elevation the cold closed in. My fingers felt numb through my gloves. I remembered my practice of wearing mittens in cold weather so you can pull you fingers together to warm them. No mittens today.

Bruce, Kevin

Chris hoofed it past me then turned up another switchback and started running. He’s our greyhound, always has been. He won’t be out here very long, I thought. My philosophy for trails is the old guy’s philosophy: if you can’t see the top, hike. Even the hiking was tough, up, up, tapdancing around the rocks. Other runners passed me, Kirk and Paul scrambled by. “Keep moving,” Paul yelled. No other choice.

The Black Rock trail elevates nearly 3,000 feet in 3.5 miles, the last quarter-mile about a 70-degree slope—almost vertical. Many runners staggered to the summit, took a deep breath and a photo, then hightailed it down in a joyful descent to the start, the fastest guys and gals got a belt buckle, maybe some adult refreshment.

On the steeper switchbacks I paused and drank. Close to the top the trail leveled off for a half-mile. After another turn two Rescue Squad volunteers, in yellow vests, stood near their ATV, apparently waiting for Black Rock victims. One of the team, I learned shortly later, was Josh. I stared at what looked like a gash in the mountain. “Is that the trail?” I asked. “That’s it,” he said, not smiling.  

I grabbed a root, then another, and pulled myself up. Runners descended from above, some leaping in a flying descent. Kirk and Paul slid past on their way down. “Lookin’ good,” Kirk yelled. “Keep it up,” Paul breathed. A few minutes later Bruce and Kevin shimmied down. “Take plenty of breaks,” Kevin warned.

I moved forward, foot by foot, pulling at roots and branches, planting each footfall, the cold taking over. I stopped and breathed, once, twice, pushed on, stopped, stepped forward.  Then I could see the last turn up to the summit. A runner swung down. “You’re shivering. I wouldn’t try it,” he said. He was right, my legs were numb. He and a woman runner helped me down, the Rescue Squad guys put me in their ATV. Josh talked about his experiences in the mountains as we careened down the trail I had just climbed. At the race finish two EMTs led me to their ambulance and checked my vitals. By then I was OK. They let me go.

 I was right about Chris. He brought home a buckle for finishing close to the top of the field.

So that was that. We drove into Sylva for lunch then headed for Asheville, a cute town made famous by breweries and, in recent years, “green” political activism. It had not warmed up. We checked into hotels, got naps, then reconvened for beers and dinner, quads stiffening. The walking helped, but our backs and legs would feel Black Rock in the morning.

We looked back, the way middle-aged and older-than-middle-age guys will do, to reprise life at that rich, happy moment. We got up to date on family, work, new communities, plans for down the road. We talked about the longtime friends who, like us, had scattered for careers, retirement, other things. As always, we invented schemes for the next reunion: back to Virginia for some running event—or maybe somewhere warm. Kevin, our Florida rep, is on board for a beach junket.

We joked a bit about the run, it never was the main event, and the weekend got better as we detached from Black Rock. We showed up, after all, got some fresh air and a mountain adventure, the fitness experience that reminded us of the things we did when we started doing this ten or more years ago. We were younger and stronger and life was simpler, and health problems were only a bad dream. We all get tired more easily now. We all know it. But there we were, together.      

Riverwood Acres

March 22, 2021

The “stimulus” payment landed in our checking account a few days ago, $2,800 for the two of us. We did catch the news report a week ago Friday of the family of five that got $7,000. Whoa. We didn’t have a pandemic when our kids were dependents, and Congress didn’t give stimulus payments for chicken pox or ear infections. But I did remember to thank our grandsons, since they’ll be paying for it.

I guess we’ll use some of it for “transition” expenses: the movers, the painters, the new stuff we need, those things that everyone needs when moving. Then we have to inspire ourselves.  The strangeness of the whole experience hasn’t worn off yet. At our age, settling into a new place brings a sense of the final step, the last big decision. We get the feeling that others are watching to see whether we’ll figure it out.

Our little homestead will be a little different than others in the neighborhood. Up and down the street I see two-car garages open and bursting with mowers, toolboxes, lawn furniture, bikes, sports gear. Giant SUVs and pickup trucks are in driveways or parked in the street. This is the South, after all. We won’t have any of that. My goal, since this is the first home we’ve ever had with a garage, is to use it as a garage. I’ve practiced inching the van into the confined space.

Judging from all the stray bikes and basketball goals, we’ll be the odd childless couple the neighbors will wonder about, the oldsters who didn’t default to some version of a “55 and better” community. My first idea was a secluded place in the mountains. That didn’t work out. When looking for our new nest we drove again and again out into the sticks. We saw Walhalla, we saw Tigerville (is it Tygerville?), Traveler’s Rest, Easley, a few others. What was it about those places that chased me back to the burbs?

I wonder now. Familiarity has to do with it, the odd comfort in stepping out the front door and looking at rows of houses on similar-sized lots up and down the street, kids’ toys littering the lawns, the occasional stroller who waves, the other things about subdivision living that tell us that life here is more or less what we hoped for. “Riverside Glen” is the name of the place, posted on a little sign at the intersection with a busy main street, although no river flows anywhere nearby. I’ve been calling it “Glenwood Estates” or “Woodside Manor” or “Riverwood Acres,” provoking Sandy’s impatience and her sense of “this is the way it is, get used to it.”

The remote places we looked at are on the northern fringe of the state, an hour or more from the city. They are pretty, lush with woods and views of the Blue Ridge. The houses are ranch-style, brick or frame, the lots generally are huge, resembling small farms, a long arms’ length from neighbors. The nearest business is a gas station or a Stop ‘N Go or Dollar General. Small Baptist and other Protestant churches line the country byways. The main highways, U.S. 25 and 276, which take you to North Carolina, are dotted with shacks under six-foot-high signs advertising “Fireworks” and flying Confederate flags. Grocery shopping would mean a ten- or 20-mile drive, minimum.

While speeding past those places you spot several retirement communities that offer through the woods a glimpse of a golf course or a lake, sometimes both. I recall they feature formidable stone walls and a guard kiosk. No locals would be getting in except to make deliveries. I forget the names, but they all have names: “Forest Haven” or “Mountain Aerie” capture the flavor.

I admit it was the same in rural northern Virginia: the more-or-less ramshackle small rural settlements with the modest little stores and churches around the Massanuttens and Shenandoahs are set off by pricey gated places and resorts. High-priced Rappahannock County, dotted with cute tourist spots like Washington and Sperryville, offered as many “Trump-Pence” signs as the boondocks counties farther south. But I never thought much about any of that because, as much as we liked puttering about the antique shops, we never considered moving out there. I drove through them to get to the mountains. The communities themselves were remote and alien.

We go to remote places, and sometimes seek to live near them, to restore something to our lives by being within the solitude of fierce, rocky forests, the Appalachians and their extended cousins. They call us in a mysterious way to learn something about ourselves and our connections to others, to truth, to God. If we’re inclined, we can recall that poor, rough-hewn people lived in those places a century ago, hacking a living from the hostile, rocky ground. They left something of their sense of life, a legacy of reverence for the earth and its connections to something non-earthly, that can restore for us a sense of the goodness, the holiness of life lived in reverence for others. So we keep going to those lonely, beautiful places.

But solitude and mystery and truth can overwhelm, and are best taken in small doses. We looked around the highlands and beyond, then beat a path back to what we know: the outer fringe of the urban world, not at the monster scale like Atlanta or even Charlotte. This place, Greenville, seems about right, and our kids are here. It’s a place I never thought about before they moved here. We took our best shot at what seemed like Shangri-la, country miles from Riverside Glen. But here’s where the journey ended.      

Resilience

March 15, 2021

I set my cellphone down on the bureau to get dressed. Five minutes later I had no idea what happened to it. I searched high and low for my glasses, then found them perched on my head. I left my keys on the kitchen counter, then ransacked the place searching for them. I gathered my wallet, jacket, and phone to return a book to the library. I opened the door to leave, then wondered where is the book? It was wedged under my arm.

What is going on? Almost everyone over the age of 60 knows. The mysterious connections in my brain—some of them—have become frayed. Agatha Christie’s eccentric detective, Hercule Poirot, took pride in his “little gray cells.” I took pride in mine, too. But lately, less than I used to. I’ve learned how to focus intensively when introduced to someone. Otherwise my mind is blank on the person’s name twenty minutes later.

Neurosurgeon and CNN health reporter Sanjay Gupta explains what is going on in Keep Sharp: Building a Better Brain at Any Age, his eloquent, disturbing, scary, but finally encouraging analysis of the stages of the loss of brain function and how it can be confronted.  He reports that a 2017 UCLA study found that 47 million Americans show some evidence of preclinical Alzheimer’s disease, named in 1910 for its discoverer, the German psychiatrist Aloysius Alzheimer. By 2060, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s dementia or cognitive impairment is projected to grow from 6 million to 15 million. One new case of dementia will be diagnosed every four seconds. From 2018 to 2050 the worldwide number with Alzheimer’s will grow by 200 percent.

Nearly every adult, and many children, know someone who has experienced the tragic, sometimes terrifying consequences of severe cognitive decline. Sandy’s mother, in her seventies, would leave the house while unobserved. She hid the TV remote in her shoe. While home alone, she placed a coffee pot on the stove, lit the burner, then forgot about it. Her son and granddaughter arrived a short while later, smelled smoke, and shut the oven off before fire spread through the house. Within months she entered a facility that treated patients suffering mental decline. Shortly thereafter she was unable to recognize her children.

Gupta teaches that the brain, weighing roughly three pounds, “comprises all the circuitry we need to do just about everything.” The brain, he says, contains an estimated 100 billion brain cells, or neurons, and billions of nerve fibers linked by trillions of connections called synapses. These allow us think abstractly, feel angry or hungry, remember, rationalize, make decisions, be creative, form language, and on and on. Each part of the brain serves a defined purpose; all are linked to function in a coordinated manner.

Then, the decline. Gupta points out that “we often don’t and can’t know what triggers cognitive decline.” One uncomfortable fact: diseases like Alzheimer’s start twenty to thirty years before symptoms develop.

The great dilemma in research on cognitive decline is that no precise cause or causes have been identified. Gupta writes that what leads to grave cognitive decline in person A will not cause it in person B, C, or D. The “amyloid hypothesis,” he says, postulates that sticky proteins accumulate to form plaques that destroy the essential synapses that allow brain cells to communicate. Yet scientists aren’t sure whether the hypothesis is correct. Research has explored other possible causes of brain disease: genetics, infections, injury, nutrient deficiency, prolonged metabolic disfunction, exposure to dangerous chemicals, all of which can stimulate an inflammatory reaction in the brain. Inflammation, he tells us, is a common thread in all the theories about brain decline, and most other types of illness.

Gupta identifies three stages of decline: normal aging, mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and dementia, in several forms. Vascular dementia is caused by insufficient blood supply to the brain. Dementia with Lewy’s bodies results from protein buildup in parts of the brain that control cognition, movement, and behavior. Frontotemporal Lobar dementia is caused by nerve cell loss in the frontal and temporal lobes, leading to behavior changes and poor judgment. Alzheimer’s, a progressive disease, accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases, he says.

Dwelling on Gupta’s analysis is a dark experience. Yet he brings us back to light. With Keep Sharp he aims at training a resilient brain. He focuses on likely contributing factors that can be finessed by a transformative focus on resilience, and cites AARP’s five “pillars” of brain health: Move, Discover, Relax, Nourish, Connect. These lead just where they sound. Move: get regular exercise. Discover—do new things. Relax means get rid of stress. Nourish—get the sugar out of your diet. Connect: engage with others.

Gupta adds his own 12-week program, capturing all of those. “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” he reminds us. Exercise, get good sleep, open the mind to new challenges, form new relationships. Diet is a huge factor in achieving resilience. Gupta offers his own wrinkles, like “try to eat only when the sun is shining.” “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a peasant.” His quick take is his acronym SHARP: Slash the sugar, Hydrate smartly, Add Omega-3 healthy fats, Reduce portions, and Plan meals ahead.

We’ve heard the diet-and-exercise piece elsewhere. Gupta weaves it together with reminders for the folks most likely to be getting nervous about not remembering what day it is, what was for dinner yesterday, the last movie they saw. He writes for caregivers, pointing out that about 60 million Americans are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s—more than twice the population of Texas. He offers solid guidance for them on where to find support, social engagement programs, appropriate clinical trials, how to keep a home safe, making legal and financial plans, and building a care team. The caregiver, he notes, is the “invisible second patient.”

He comes around, as promised, to a bright note. Teams of scientists are doing breakthrough research on cognitive decline, for example, an experimental vaccine developed at the University of New Mexico. Yale researchers are working on a “drinkable cocktail of designer molecules” that has restored memory in mice. The future of brain research, he argues, is exciting. So go look again for your keys. And get going on Gupta’s program.

The House

March 8, 2021

Holding my younger grandson’s hand, I slogged along the Raven Cliff trail, my daughter and the older boy just ahead of us. To the north, South Carolina’s piece of the Blue Ridge towered above us. Looking south we could see for maybe 75 miles to the hazy, flat-blue horizon. The air was clear, pure, perfect. I was warm, since lately I overdress. The kids were fine in their teeshirts.

My daughter called me about a field trip up to Caesar’s Head State Park, off U.S. 276 just south of the North Carolina line. It was a natural for me, just over four rocky miles out and back, or to and from an overlook that offers a glimpse of spectacular Raven’s Cliff Falls, where Matthew’s Creek plunges 420 feet. Along the trail we looked up soaring, thickly wooded grades and down steep slopes crisscrossed with fallen trees. We moved slowly, climbing over logs and rocks. The trail narrowed and snaked through the woods, then opened up before the falls.

The mountains sweep from our minds the dreck of life around us: the persistence of disease and the daily political mudfights, the cold war wracking the country. Then they call us to look inward, to wonder about our mortality. In a strange way, wondering brought my mind to our new home.

We finalized the deal last week, signing all those forms at an attorney’s office. The next step was deciding what to do about the look of the house and the tastes of the seller, an elderly widow who has moved to a nursing home after twenty years in the place. 

The house is empty now, but I recall her furnishings and frills from our first look. The front bedroom had been used as a sort of office. A high bookshelf was stacked with Bibles and Baptist texts and tracts. Two photos, two only, stood at the end of the upper shelf, one of a couple, the other a formal portrait of a young woman. The realtor said she was the widow’s daughter, who had passed away some years ago.

I tried to form an idea of this woman who we will never meet. She liked a deep gray for the front rooms, pastels for the rest of the place, a delicate, feminine wallpaper pattern for one wall of the master bedroom. The house whispered to me of a singular way of life: tranquil, gentle, discreet, abiding in faith and neighborliness. It spoke of a life of the genteel South, well remote from the surly moodiness of some old-timers in these parts, the ones with the Confederate flags. The collection of books told me she was devoted to her church. 

The front yard is tidy, neatly landscaped to be compliant with the HOA conventions. The back yard is square and modest, bordered by a white picket fence; the tops of a couple of the pickets are broken. The soil is soft and moss-covered, but showed that someone cultivated something last summer. A large tree looms in the yard of the neighbor directly behind ours, promising shade. A small raised deck sits outside the back door, the wood getting soft and rotten, the paint peeling. I guessed the decline predated the owner, who probably had had no interest in sunning herself. She had other concerns. 

The entire house was spotless, including the kitchen appliances. While she may have suspected we wouldn’t go along with her color scheme, clearly she had seen to it that someone scrubbed the oven, refrigerator, and cabinets, everything. The countertop, although the builder’s standard economy-grade laminate, gleamed.

She paid scrupulous attention to details, including some odd ones. In a kitchen drawer we found the warranty paperwork and instruction manuals for things long gone: a coffeemaker, toaster oven, hotplate, clock radio. It occurred to me that that drawer may not have been opened in a decade.

Her nephew, who came by to help clear her things out, said she was at a place only a few miles away. He was holding garage sales to get rid of her housewares and selling her car, a 2004 Honda, which showed not a dent or a ding.  

I wondered about her thoughts right now. Like Sandy and me, she has left a home that was hers for decades to restart her life. She’ll be at a senior-citizen housing facility at close quarters with others. Was she happy about that? Was it her choice? How would she adjust to moving from life alone in a home of her own, to a furnished room in an institution with rules and policies? How does anyone?

I wondered whether, while living in the house that is now ours, she thought about her own future. Presumably she, or somebody, worked out the financial details for her new arrangement. What about the rest of it: is nursing home living permanent, the last stop? How do you say goodbye to your last home on earth?

We know that senior life is full of these questions. Some you can answer, some you can’t. You try, then move on. Say your prayers, and move on.

On Friday I finished my stint of 30 radiation sessions., Sandy and I brought brownies for the techs, I rang the traditional bell, for the second time. We finished our covid vaccinations. I got scheduled for another CT scan. We started hauling boxes to the house.

We walked through the place again and looked at the walls and the gently dated wallpaper. The paint colors were still deep and full, the molding joints flawlessly cut and fit. We thought again about the former owner, her satisfaction with her home, her way of life. We talked about it. Then we hired a painter to change everything, to remake, renew the place. The owner’s dark grays, the subtle shades that comforted her, will give way to something we picked. The house will be reborn. We’ll move on.

AHOY!

March 1, 2021

The six tables were arranged in a circle and well-spaced, about eight feet apart. Two people sat at each table, Sandy and me at one, another couple across from us, and two ladies at each of the other four. We all wore masks and rubber gloves. We looked to the head table, where Carol, an auburn-haired lady with a dynamic command presence, presided.

As we settled in, Carol announced that we were gathered for the first meeting of AHOY (Advancing Health Over Years). We all looked at each other. That’s unique, I thought.

On an impulse last Saturday, Sandy and I joined the YMCA near our new home, with the idea of using the gym and pool. On Monday Sandy participated in a socially distanced Silver Sneakers exercise class and, hoping to meet new people, signed us up for a pandemic-aware Silver Sneakers Potluck and Bingo gathering. I was a little uneasy, but the Y staffers seemed conscientious about distancing, masks, etc. So we went.

It was lunchtime, everyone brought a dish. We were a little late, the rest of the group were already seated. Sandy recognized most from Monday’s exercise class. Introductions were hit or miss. We waved at Ginger, Barbara, and Al on the opposite side of the room. It was then that Carol, who’s also the Silver Sneakers swim aerobics instructor, said that henceforth the group would be AHOY. I was not sure I’d signed up for henceforth, but everyone smiled and nodded.

She invited us to the buffet, one table at a time. I grabbed some chicken salad. Two ladies had gone all out with desserts, buttermilk pie, a new one on me, and a giant cherry-and-whipped cream item.

Predictably, the lunch chitchat landed on the local vaccination race. Everyone had had at least the first shot, several had received their second. One woman said she waited five hours for hers; Sandy was able to top that with her seven hours. Al claimed the first shot provides 95 percent protection. Ginger argued with him. I had heard 40 percent. We moved on.

As we nibbled, the conversation turned to diets and weight-loss strategies. One woman swore by the Keto diet, saying it helped a friend of hers lose 50 pounds. Someone else said she had tried it, lost weight, then regained it. Carol pushed her water-aerobics class. Then we went on to surgeries. Barbara just had her second neck operation, needed to correct problems caused by the first one. Carol has had a couple of procedures on her back.

A distinguished-looking lady rose, saying she couldn’t stay for Bingo, but stopped at each table to drop off brochures providing information for women on heart disease. “More women die of heart disease than men,” she said. “I give talks on heart health. Let me know if you’re interested,” she added with a wave.

Discussion continued on that topic a little longer. Then Carol handed out Bingo cards and the tabs you use to cover your numbers. Cards were a quarter each. Most folks took two, a couple of people took three. First game: regular Bingo, fill one row across, down, or diagonally.  Carol started calling: “B-6, I-14, N-27,” and so on. Within minutes a lady across the room yelled Bingo. The rest of us sighed in disappointment. Carol checked her card and awarded her the four bucks the rest of us had paid for our cards.

“Bingo is great for seniors,” she said. “It makes you focus on something. For that one game we all focused for seven minutes,” she added. “Sometimes lately, when I walk into a room I can’t remember why.”  Al, across the room, chortled. “I can’t remember why I’m in any room,” he kidded. We all laughed a bit nervously.

I hit the jackpot in the next game, the “borders” variant, filling the border rows, for $4.00. Then Carol got clever. “Fill the entire card,” she commanded. Al groaned. “That’ll take forever.” Carol ignored him and started belting out numbers. A few minutes later she asked each of us to report how many numbers we’d covered. I had the fewest. “Well, I tricked you all,” Carol said. “The winner is the one with the worst card.” She picked up the quarters and again awarded the $4.00 to me.

This is fun, I told myself. But I lost the last two games, reducing my net winnings to $6.00. Sandy slid the 24 quarters into her purse. We returned our cards and tabs to Carol. She adjourned the meeting, advising that the Y is soliciting contributions for a downtown food pantry and that she’ll match all donations from the AHOY members. We applauded. She announced that our next meeting will be March 17—a St. Paddy’s day theme, maybe? Well, we’re in the mainly Protestant South, not Boston, New York, or Philly.

 Cautiously we milled around a bit, chatting while keeping our distance. No one was in a hurry, we’re all retired; no urgent staff meetings to rush to. Folks then retrieved their dishes and drifted away, Sandy told Carol she’d see her at the first swim class she could get to, which is today.

Stumbling into AHOY the day before turning 72, I suppose I fit right in. Most of the others were older, some in their eighties. Sandy, four years younger than me, is the kid in the group. Yet I wondered whether I really did fit. Most of our friends are younger than us, some by a decade or more. The old-timers—my age group, from my Virginia trail-running group are phasing out, replaced by fitter young guys and gals in their twenties and thirties. That’s life, a good thing.

But I thought AHOY is a good thing, too. The slowdown that comes from plodding on in years inclines many to depression and isolation. Longtime human attachments disappear, relocate, get sick, pass away. Children may be present, they may be heroic, but they can be overwhelmed. They have their own lives, as we seniors once did.

I still say to my fellow oldsters, buck up, keep moving. Go to the swim class. Get out of the house, go for a walk, go easy on the reminiscing, your kids have already heard all your stories. Pay attention to your health, stop talking so much about it. Make sure you get to the next AHOY meeting, but skip the buttermilk pie.

Winter

February 22, 2021

A touch of snow fell one night here a week ago, thick wet stuff that stuck to everything and looked clean and pretty the next morning. By noon it was gone, the South Carolina sun emerged over the Upstate. Still, a damp wind blew through for an afternoon. It’s winter, after all. But our winter is nothing next to the subfreezing ordeal of Texas, Oklahoma, elsewhere. Then last week’s storms swept southwest-northeast, mostly missing our corner of the country. It was blustery, though, so we complained.

Staying upbeat, I walked in mid-afternoon with the grandsons to the neighborhood park. The lawns of the surrounding homes were uniformly brown, the brown of that thick zoysia that grows everywhere around here. The sun shone enough to create the eerie half-light of midwinter, but didn’t ease the chill I felt as I watched them running back and forth between the slides and swings. I rubbed my hands together and stamped my feet.

Shakespeare and then John Steinbeck wrote of the winter of our discontent. We peer now at the darkness around us: the cruel bitterness of the weather; the pandemic slaughter; the poisonous fanaticism of political thugs; the reek of corruption that lingers after the recent presidential term. It is a winter of our hearts and minds. We stagger towards spring, waiting for vaccines, for leadership, for an end to the winter’s bleakness, for April, and a way out. “April is the cruelest month,” T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, “breeding lilacs out of dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

Spring rain is coming. We know it. Meanwhile, those who know winter trade memories meant to soothe spirits: of Norman Rockwell Christmas scenes of horse-drawn sleighs, the snow gleaming in candlelight; lustrous white backyard and hillside snowfalls; the dark gleam of virgin ice over frozen lakes; even the carefree old photos of dad shoveling the driveway. The winters of our dreams.

I recall the blizzards of my college years in New Hampshire, when snow fell ferociously and blew sideways into massive drifts held back by snow fences the school erected every fall. Then we went to class. We skied through it at Gunstock, a steep place in the White Mountains, where you can look from the highest points out over Lake Winnipesaukee. But the memories are mixed. I had the bad luck to go through Marine Corps Officers Basic School near Quantico, Va., during winter, where at midnight the northern Virginia forest seemed the coldest place on earth. In Nashville, where we lived in the early 1980s, the temperature dipped one winter to -17F for three days, shutting down the city.

On yet another chilly, overcast afternoon we drove past the house we’re buying. The owner agreed to fix the few problems the inspection found. We looked the place over again, hoping not to find anything else wrong. We talked about painting walls and about tearing out the cramped, rotted deck, and cheerful things like planting flowers and vegetables, always futile in the deep shade of our Virginia backyard. But I stared at the emptiness of the yard, a level, bare piece of ground, missing suddenly my brick patio, my jungle of perennials, the steep, thickly wooded hill that gave the house the sense of a forest settlement. Here at the new place, we look past a small white picket fence, which separates our lot from someone else’s backyard.

We strolled up the block, or down the block, walking in the street because the lots are not bounded by sidewalks. The street is a dead end that just beyond our place inclines into a steep grade ending in a turnaround bordered by a vacant lot running down to thick woods. A creek wanders through a gulley. The underbrush is too dense to penetrate, apparently no one ventures through it. Winter has left the growth dead and brown, with spring it will turn into thick jungle.

We headed back up the hill. Past our place we turned onto a short stretch of asphalt that links our street with another that runs parallel to ours. Two streets to the entire subdivision. The other one is lined with two-level brick homes more spacious, more upscale than ours, probably way more expensive.

We looked about for the neighbors. At one home farther up our street two boys were tossing a football, a young girl was roller skating. I thought I saw their dad moving around in the garage but couldn’t be sure. We kept walking. It was getting chilly.

This is so grown-up, I thought. I couldn’t recall exploring much when we moved into our Virginia house. We had four little kids then keeping us busy. They met the neighbors before we did. Now that I recall, I met very few. Our community was full of transients, civil servants and military who moved in because the place was affordable, then disappeared after a few years, replaced by others like themselves. The subdivision was “non-HOA.” If you wanted to keep a car on blocks in the driveway, or an old washing machine on the porch, or a giant boat sitting in the street, you could. Some did. Thirty-three years later, our kids were gone. Then, as winter set in, so were we.

I’ve read that winter has hit northern Virginia hard, just enough snow to make driving dangerous, followed by the usual freezing rain. I put on a brave front the last few years, getting out with the running group in predawn darkness on our neighborhood course. But I recall one single-digit Saturday two years ago when we went a few miles on a forest trail. It was time. So here we are, still asking ourselves how we managed all this: a new city and a new home, on a street without sidewalks. Then too, new seasons. We’ll be in the new house soon. Spring is coming

The Hill

February 15, 2021

Climbing hills, if steep enough and if you stretch your stride, can cause your heart to pound and pulsate, your lungs to heave, your shoulders and thighs to seize up. Two months ago I was looking beyond scans, surgery, blood draws, and an inside-the-chest tube (well, not that). I knew what was coming, or thought I did. A week before the operation I ran and hiked nearby trails with plenty of up and down. That got it out of my system for a while.

The plan on arriving here was to see and explore this part of the country. Until that surreal last day in Virginia, when the doc showed me the dark spot on my scan, I thought I was done with cancer.  I wanted to see the mountains and the wilderness that stretch north and west from this corner of South Carolina, into Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and the few small towns scattered through the wild country, some pretty and picturesque, others not so much. Then, maybe, farther west. That’s still the plan. I call this “On the Road” for a reason. Now there’s covid and treatment.

The road trip and the mountain trails are part of our dream world. In the real world, the dreary, cruel world of health care, doctors, or some of them, are counseling their patients to get regular exercise as essential to a healthy life. Those who do know that for some patients it’s a waste of breath. Some patients ignore it, others become hostile. Other doctors never mention it for the same reason. They know that the curses of high blood pressure or hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, obesity have become embedded in American culture. We see the victims every day, struggling to walk, enduring chronic pain and shortness of breath. They come to assume that the pain, the appointments and tests, the lists of prescriptions, are part of life.

Some folks in that place find themselves facing problems that aren’t only physical. They start to recognize they’re standing on a kind of cliff, and that doctors don’t have the answers they want and hope for. They find themselves at the brink of a choice: either depression and despair—or maybe a way out. The way out means change, it means extricating themselves from poor diet and trying some level of exercise—walking, maybe. The choice may have nothing to do with their doctor. But it’s there: despair or hope; death, or a chance for a better life.

We all can find ourselves in that kind of a fix, looking at that choice. When you’re living with acute, relentless pain you can lapse easily into metaphysical darkness. You may have had the idea—it can’t happen to me. Then it happens to you. You may fall back on your spiritual resources, your understanding of God and His will. Or not. You may find your own way. You may have a name for where you are, the poor mees. But you get to that place you know you have to escape. Not easy. You can start climbing.

The driveway out of this apartment complex is a steep quarter-mile slope, maybe a 25 percent grade. The complex is built on the side of a hill. Our building nestles into the grade. The driveway isn’t wide enough for two vehicles to pass. To the left, the east if going up, is the thickly wooded side of the hill, a three-acre chunk of land posted with No Trespassing signs. To the right, the west, is a stretch of scrap woods and another apartment complex, maybe a little nicer than ours. From the base of the hill you can make out the thick plot of decorative shrubbery at the top that marks the intersection of the driveway with the main thoroughfare, Pelham Road. You can start at the short driveway to our building, which sits about two hundred yards up from the base of the hill, or hoof it down and face the full climb. I took the longer route. I needed to get past that quick stab of pain I get from stretching my legs with no warmup.   

Typically I stare down at the surface, measuring my stride. The first 20 yards are easy, but there’s always a stiff breeze created by the wind-tunnel narrowness of the road. I start feeling the grade and the growing strain on my lungs, and I gasp a bit. I know my conditioning is shot. The memory of the radiation sessions two years ago returns, the image of that rotating lens staring at my chest, the beam penetrating to the windpipe and lungs, doing what it was intended to do, kill the tumor—but also slashing my respiration capacity.

Sucking air, I look up. The mass of shrubs, my reference point, is still a dot where the curbs come together at the top. A car pulls by, I move left, the driver waves. I bend forward again, stretching my stride, feeling better, seeing the first lamppost, the one-third point. By now I have a rhythm, favoring my right leg and pulling forward, seeing the asphalt pass beneath me, foot by foot. I’m striding nearly flat-footed in “granny gear,” the term coined by trail-running champ Scott Jurek when he wrote about winning the Western States 100-mile race seven times.

That alien reference makes me smile as I hoof it up an asphalt driveway in the suburbs of a mid-size city. This ain’t no mountain trail. Memories rush back of all those trail adventures, in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Montana—Montana a bunch of times, when I would have thought of the idea of hiking a driveway an embarrassing joke. Yet here I am.

I pass the last lamppost, my lungs heaving. The shrubs are to my right, I lengthen my stride to finish, with Pelham Road now in front of me, traffic easing by. The stress on my thighs surges as I come out of my hiking crouch and jog a few steps to the street level, then curl around the shrubs and the big “Beacon Ridge Apartments” sign. From the top the descent looks long and steep. My legs feel like rubber. Downhill is for recovery. Maybe a second go-round? I wonder. Repeats are training. Let’s see how it feels at the bottom.   

The Shot

February 8, 2021

“I found an appointment in Columbia,” the young woman on the other end of the line said.

“I’m in Greenville. Columbia is two hours away,” I answered. “Can I get it here?”

“Oh. I don’t know where Columbia is,” she said.

“Where are you?” I asked, surprised. I thought I was talking with a local person.

“I’m in Texas, but we’re not supposed to say where,” she replied.

She was friendly and vivacious, she was with the Vaccine Administration Management System (VAMS). When I said I was 71 and eligible to get the covid-19 vaccine here in South Carolina, she answered lightheartedly that she was 32.

I said thanks and goodbye.  I had grazed the internet looking for appointments here in town or just outside town, all sites reporting “no appointments available.” The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, or SCDHEC, the vaccine mastermind for the state, sent me to the CDC website. I filled out an online form that connected me to the VAMS.  

Last week a nurse told us about a walk-in site, an abandoned K-Mart six miles away. We hustled over there. A block-long line of oldsters stood in the chill, kludged together as if waiting to get movie tickets. Most wore masks, not all. We walked to the end, edging away from others. Ten minutes later someone announced the site was out of vaccine. A worker said I could stay and make an appointment. The wait was two hours. We left.

The next day I tried the Prisma Health website. It identified me in an “authorized” population. It sailed me to another site, and within minutes I had an appointment for 7 AM at the K-Mart. I patted myself on the back. The family doctor wrote a letter for Sandy attesting that, although not 70, she’s a caregiver, in the hope that would rope her in.

Recalling the scary crowd scene, we showed up Thursday at the K-Mart just before 6 AM. It was drizzly, cold, and raw, luckily the sidewalk along the building was out of the rain. Uniformed security guards were setting up a barrier dividing those with appointments from the walk-in hopefuls. I stepped up to the locked doors and created the line, hunching my shoulders against the chill, for the hourlong wait. Others fell in behind me. Sandy showed her letter to an official. He went inside to relay her pitch.

We stood, as if frozen in place. The minutes ticked by. A few retirees came forward, announced their appointments, expecting to be ushered in. The guard gestured at the block-long line. Folks behind me pressed forward. I took a few uneasy steps. They chatted about the runaround in finding appointments, of calling here, calling there. Standing in a chilly line with strangers, what do you talk about? I said nothing, but stared, shivering, at the rain and the dark wet parking lot. A few minutes before seven someone came out and apologized to Sandy. The vaccine bosses had turned her down. She’d have to wait for her shot at least until Monday, today, when the SCDHEC opened eligibility to 65-year-olds. She said OK.

Someone else came out and checked our temperatures with one of those forehead thermometers and shouted questions down the line: Anyone feeling sick? Anyone already had covid-19? Who has an appointment? Who doesn’t?

I gripped my cellphone showing my appointment email as they let us in. “Those with appointments turn left, all others turn right,” a guard yelled. I turned into a maze formed by a rope fence. I hiked up, then down then up then down, then faced two friendly young women at desks. They squinted at my driver’s license, checked their computer, and waved me through. A guard sent me to another desk. A nurse offered me a seat and a form to complete. She quizzed me. “How are you feeling? “Any allergies or medical conditions?” I mentioned the radiation sessions, six down, 21 to go. “I work at the Cancer Institute,” she said with a smile.

She glanced at my form and gave me the vaccine briefing. I was surprised at the detail about possible side effects of the first shot:  your arm will ache, Tylenol or Ibuprofen would be OK, she said. It’s the second shot that can knock you out.

I took off my sweater. She grabbed a syringe, daubed a spot on my shoulder, and it was over. No sensation. She stuck a band-aid on the spot and pointed to the end of the building. “Sit there for 15 minutes, you can make your second-shot appointment.” I thanked her and moved on. Sandy met me at a field of a hundred or so chairs, set up six feet apart. “I got my appointment. Next Tuesday,” she said. The letter had not helped, but she was relieved.

I turned and looked back. The crowd was inching through the rope maze. A few people sat for their ID checks, a few more for the interview and shot. Maybe a half-dozen were seated behind me in the recovery ward.

I told myself this is the best it gets. South Carolina had an average of 3,500 new cases daily last week, most per capita in the country. I took a bottle of water and we grabbed our coats. Outside, the line stretched for a city block, the retirees crowded together.

Millions are spending countless hours surfing the internet or clutching their phones, waiting on hold, seeking vaccine appointments. I got lucky. Once through the door, I sailed through. The volunteers were friendly and helpful, they work long hours, surely at some risk. They showed how Americans know how to step up, as the country battles the nightmare.

 I wondered: why give priority to seniors, mostly retired, who can wait safely at home for a few more months? The vulnerable ones are the people on the front lines of the economy, the bus drivers, the grocery clerks, teachers, restaurant workers, the people likely living paycheck to paycheck, and those with no paycheck. Take care of them first.

Well. I let off steam. I adjusted my mask, we headed for the van. We’ll be back Tuesday. Hope the weather’s better.