How do aging athletes accept the loss of former abilities, when injuries or other physical limitations force themselves upon us?
This post is about being thankful for what our bodies (and minds) can still do.
Accepting that I can no longer be a runner because of a severely arthritic knee has been a gradual process. I took another step towards acceptance when I met my friend Norbert by chance at Chimo Pool a few days ago. He told me about a recent encounter he had had with an old man at this same pool. His story made me realize that part of adjusting psychologically is seeing things from a different perspective.
Norbert gave me permission to retell his story. But first, let me explain why he is more aware than most people of how physical abilities can be snatched away unexpectedly.
Six years ago, at the age of 53, Norbert was a beachcomber who had always been fit; he was a recreational runner and hiker. One day he was working on the Fraser River near the Port Mann bridge, tying up logs. He got a bad headache, which was unusual for him. Then he noticed that tying knots was becoming difficult. He had to think about every step of the process. He realized something was badly wrong and phoned his employer, Harken Towing Ltd. They told him an ambulance would be there in five minutes. He remembers talking to the ambulance attendant and getting in the ambulance. His memory of the next month is blank. The next thing he remembers is waking up at home and thinking, “Who am I? Where is the bathroom?” He could only tell me what happened to him during that month from what his wife Jackie told him afterwards.
He had experienced a cerebral aneurysm and for a few days his life hung by a thread.
According to Jackie, who stayed with him constantly during his three weeks in the hospital, these are some of the things that happened to Norbert:
- In the Emergency area, when asked where he was, he first said, “South America” and later, “Paris.”
- He had fluid building up on his brain so they put in a “brain drain” to drain the excess fluid so his brain wouldn’t literally blow up. Soon after it was put in, Jackie noticed there was blood all over the place. Norbert had pulled out the drain. He was operated on again; this time his hands were tied to the bed.
- Soon after that, Norbert went into a coma. At that time, doctors told Jackie he might only live for another day or two. After about 18 hours he came out of the coma. The crisis was over.
- When he came out of the coma, Norbert had a permanent cerebral shunt installed. This tube regulates the pressure of fluid around his brain and drains excess fluid to his abdomen.
- Norbert was in the hospital for three weeks. It was hard for him to move any part of his body. Jackie, who knew he needed to eat frequently to avoid feeling weak, chewed up apples in her mouth and fed Norbert when he was unconscious by putting the pre-chewed food in his mouth.
When he returned home, Norbert had a long rehabilitation process ahead of him. Walking was very difficult. He remembers, with gratitude, how his friends helped him to walk from a car into a coffee shop so he could take part in their usual Saturday morning coffee klatches.
Norbert had to relearn many simple movements. His rehabilitation has been gradual. He’s happy that he is still continuing to improve, in large part because of regular participation in Jackie’s yoga classes.
Norbert has experienced changes in the way he thinks. He says he’s lost some of his ability to think logically but he’s more creative than he used to be. He considers it to be a change for the better.
Norbert’s comments about his heightened creativity led us to a discussion about Jill Bolte-Taylor’s book My Stroke of Insight. It’s an incredible read because Bolte-Taylor is a neuroanatomist who had a massive stroke and was able to write about it both scientifically and subjectively. She wrote about how it changed the way she thought: her right brain activities became much more dominant, giving her a completely new perspective on the world and some of the deep philosophical/existential/religious questions most thinking humans ask. You can find out more about Bolte-Taylor’s experience and her book here.
With no further meandering, here is Norbert’s story. (He has given me permission to copy part of it from a note he posted on his Facebook page.)
Yesterday, at the aquatic centre, a frail-looking old man asked me if I would give him a ride home. I said sure. Another fellow and I helped get him dressed, and a lifeguard used a wheelchair to get him to the parking lot. I helped him into the car and put on his seatbelt. It was almost like taking care of my grandson. He told me his name was Titus, he was 82, he used to run marathons and was once a torchbearer. He asked if I was married. He said he was a widower. I drove him to his apartment, and helped him walk to his suite, and then helped him sit in his chair. This all took a bit of time, but then again, I have lots.
Today, I was thinking about him. I realised that in having a car and a loving wife, I am extremely wealthy. Being able to help him to walk showed me how strong I am.
I feel very fortunate and honoured that he chose to ask me.
A few days later I went back to his apartment building to check up on him. I knocked at the door and rang the bell but there was no answer. I was worried about him so I went to the building supervisor and asked if he knew whether the old man was OK. The supervisor told me that Titus had gone into the hospital a few days before.
I haven’t seen him here since. I kind of think that his time was up. I admired him for coming to the pool that day. I was glad I had been able to help him. It was a gift for me.
I was moved by Norbert’s story. I admired him, too. Not many people would have made that kind of effort for a stranger. Not many would have been concerned or friendly enough to go back to the old man’s apartment a few days later.
Did Titus know that it was his last day at the pool?
Did Norbert know it was the last day he’d be tying up logs on the river?
Will you know it when it’s the last day you can go for a run?