Fit to Travel?

As our ship neared the Arctic Circle last year on our 46-day cruise, I had an episode of GI bleeding later attributed to strong coffee mixed with strong painkillers and high-acid food.. The ship’s doctor was not happy and explained in gruesome detail how bleeding to death on a cruise ship would not be fun and he wouldn’t allow it on his watch. He ordered us off the ship in St. Johns, Newfoundland unless we could be certified by a gastroenterologist as being “fit to travel”. It was a Sunday afternoon; the ship departed at 5pm.  Amazingly, a gastroenterologist was found who abandoned his golf game, gathered his crew, did an endoscopy, found nothing and scrawled on a piece of his letterhead “Fit to Travel.”

Last month, we had yet another travel emergency, just three months out from a planned second cruise. On the second day of a family visit, a painful sore throat and productive cough ended a planned four-day visit after two days. By the end of the agonizingly long 6 hour train ride, I was feverish and breathless. Our community’s medical team sent me straight to the hospital. Diagnosis: Pneumonia, respiratory failure and pulmonary edema. I was acutely ill. The pneumonia’s gone, only a bit of fatigue remains but fear of sudden acute illness spilled over into our travel plans. Does yet another cruise increase the risk of being disembarked someplace where quality medical care is unavailable?  We began to think of cancelling the trip.

If we cancel the trip, our travel insurance policy will only reimburse us if the illness is so disabling in the written opinion of a Physician as to prevent you from taking your Trip…” I am still recovering, but certainly not disabled. My physicians see no reasons to cancel. Fear of illness is not a reimbursable excuse for cancelling though we have plenty of trepidation.

We elders wish to live every moment, and yet we also wish to avoid risk to life and limb. Within that dichotomy are nearly constant decisions ranging from eating a bowl of ice cream to knee replacement surgery. Sometimes we can adapt, as with non-dairy ice cream. Other times it’s a matter of probing our fears, recognizing that they may be less about illness or death, and more about powerlessness and lack of control.

Ultimately we decided to take this cruise, predicting that we will probably not cruise outside the US again.  We will take care with diet, sun, experiences—the gondola ride over the jungle beckons, but the zip line tour will not happen. We will keep emergency supplies and phone numbers handy while studiously attempting to let go of irrational fears of illness and death. Living life while letting go of (some of) our belief that we can control it.

Tossing out the fantasies

We first snorkled more than 50 years ago in a sheltered cove in the Virgin Islands and snorkled in the Caribbean on vacations for years after that. My first snorkeling trip, imitating a fish as I floated quietly in tropical ocean waters with reefs just below, was joyous but blurry. My vision is so bad that unless a fish ate my nose I couldn’t see it. Later, I bought contact lenses solely to see the schools in which I swam. Now, I cannot reach the ocean across the sand with my replacement knees or climb a ladder into a catamaran anchored over a reef.  I will not snorkel again. It’s time to trash the snorkel gear.

The high heels bring back memories of my younger daughter’s wedding, a loving verdant affair at which my entire family participated. Love surrounded us all on that warm, light-filled day. Purchased for just that one wedding day, the high heeled sandals complemented the dress I designed and stitched. With age comes fear of falling, arthritis and mobility problems sufficient for a handicapped parking sticker. High heels would be near-certain injury, and I will not wear them ever again. The embrace of shared family joy has faded with deaths and estrangements.  Should we live to attend a future family wedding, we will sit quietly–but joyously– in orthopedic tennis shoes while life swirls around us. It’s time to trash my last pair of high heels.

Pie and cookie baking was holiday tradition for our family– cherry, pumpkin and pecan pie made from scratch. I still smile at the stories:  my brother and I unable to roll out the crust and laughing uncontrollably;  the discovery of the hollowed out pumpkin pie shell after our calico feline discovered how delicious warm pumpkin could be.  The last pumpkin pie I made, 9 years ago with my then-11 year old granddaughter was laughingly tossed in the garbage; we forgot the sugar! Increased distractibility, problems with standing for long periods of time, our children’s very busy lives all point to purchased meals and more isolated holidays. It’s time to trash at least three of my four pie pans.

Before downsizing to our senior community, my husband and I brutally discarded hobbies that weren’t to be and books we weren’t going to read. It’s easy to give away these dusty and unused souvenirs, but much harder to let go of the fantasy that we will have another chance at the joy of using them.

Uncharted Waters

Uncharted waters,

Living life while letting go,

Now is all there is.

There’s always been a do-list on my desk, carefully dated and delineated in a spiral notebook. Some days, there have been 20 or more new entries. Periodically, I joyously strike a line through each accomplished task.

These days, there are fewer items on the do-list: backup the computer, make a physician appointment. Currently, a new spiral notebook is filling with phrases to ponder and meditations to remember… a new list for my future quiet moments.

Searching for the written ideas of others about aging, I find numerous books with eat-this, do-that advice, such as Rebellious Aging. These seem directed to the 50-year olds and 60-year olds struggling against aging. Of more interest to me are the more metaphysical, psychoanalytic writings of Kathleen Singh Downing and Helen Lukes. My current favorite is Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience, and Spirit by Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal. These authors see aging as a life cycle, a time of reflection, a transformation from do-lists to reflections, which is where I seem to be, while living life with joy.

These posts will thus be a mixture of life as I am living it and reflections on aging. I suspect that the ratio of “activities” to “reflections will change over time. Let’s see.