Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

The Thief Called Old Age

Age is the thief that enters in youth, leaving small hacks behind, backdoors that allow it to enter anytime it desires. A scrape here, a broken bone there. Illness and injury that weaken the immune system, setting in motion a series of events that will lead to arthritis and diabetes, heart disease and dementia.

The blow to the head from a fall. The chicken pox that returns as shingles. The use of antibacterial soap that kills off healthy bacteria our bodies require to function properly, permitting evolved and dangerous germs to take their place.

We begin with such promise, such possibility, the world laid out before us, the urge to conquer and explore strong, innate. We hurtle forward to examine the butterfly and the toad, the mouse and the minnow, releasing our grip on our parents’ hands to find our own way.

I can do it myself, we protest. Often we’re wrong. A mess ensues. But we learn. Eventually we master it. In the process, however, something is lost to the thief, who latches on to our every failure, our every success, depositing another marker, another smattering of entropic decay into our shells.

Don’t get me wrong. I much prefer aging to the alternative. I gladly yield my body to the thief – well, not gladly, perhaps. But the good (who die young) miss out on the opportunity to have their vigor and strength, their energy and well-being, removed a minute portion at a time.

The thief works with almost infinite patience, burgling such a tiny amount with each visit that we go about our business mostly oblivious to it all until the day we want to get down on our knees to weed the garden or stand on the stool to paint the ceiling in the spare bedroom, which seems so much harder than the last time we did it.

And the next day (or the day after) we feel sore and fatigued. We notice pain in joints we hadn’t felt in precisely that way before. If we’re unlucky, we feel the twinge in our backs or shoulders or fingers even as we’re working, and maybe we have to stop to take a break, despite never having to take a rest before.

The chore becomes drawn out, extended to several days instead of just one, or we rush through the process, feeling like we got the bulk of the project, whatever it is, done. Good enough. It doesn’t have to be perfect any longer.

We don’t see the theft, even when we look in the mirror. We wonder who that is staring back at us, how it is that we young people have become trapped in the bodies of elderly and fragile creatures. Aliens.

We know, intellectually, that entropy wins in the end, but our emotional cores struggle against that truth. We fight it for years if we’re lucky, for decades. We kick and scream and rage against the decline, only surrendering when the inevitability of the darkness reaches beyond hope, the thief taking finally that last gift.

But the battle, the glorious battle of life, continues with the next generation, the strangers who share the molecules we breathe, hope passed down from one family to the next, an endless cycle of rebirth.

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