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.


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.