Flu Lessons: Being Old and Sick

The second he completed the rapid flu test in his office, my doctor put a mask on his face and threw one to me.  “Don’t go near anyone without it,” he almost barked.  That was unlike him and took me aback.  Then he lightened up:  “Don’t worry.  There’s only a 5% mortality rate for the flu with people your age.  You’ll be fine.”

For more than a week, Franny and I were felled and jointly quarantined by a flu that, in me, moved ineluctably from a faucet of a drippy nose to a sore throat to coughing that felt like a thousand knives to the chest, to an unsettled stomach, to … well you get the picture.

We spent our days like zombies, our minds clouded and glum, lazing about the house like two vaguely related objects in space, not touching, hardly talking, each in a solitary universe.  Hours and hours passed with junk fiction, television, naps, and almost no food.  I lost a pound every day and felt progressively weaker.  Boredom.  There was nothing to break the monotony of the days.

Sunday afternoon was the occasion of our sweet, two-year-old granddaughter Lucy’s birthday party. Franny and I maturely declined the invitation, not wanting to infect anyone.  In the morning, Gabe brought over a vat of  potato-leek soup, and left it on the door step for us.  We cracked the door to retrieve it, feeling like long-term, immobile residents of an assisted living facility, peering for a moment out into the world.

As a child, I hated being sick.  The drill in those days was to relegate people to their beds.  Even urinating took place in milk bottles.  And believe me, we weren’t treated tenderly.  The idea was to get us up and about as quickly as possible.  I agreed because bed rest was boring and, even while sick, I was physically restless.

And I still hate it.  It may be 40 years since I’ve been laid up with a flu.  During the last decades, whenever there’s been a hint of illness, my attitude has been simple: Ignore it…it’s just a state of mind…plow through.  I’ve virtually staked my identity on what I saw as my strength of mind.  On a similar but side note, one year I decided that feeling cold weather was also a state of mind, and spent the winter without a coat.  Superman lives here.

Then I moved into my 70s, where I began to take more notice of those stomach pains, the weakness I felt on some days, the aches in my joints. The imagery I have for old age is antithetical to how I conceived of myself as a young and even middle-aged man.  But indeed, Superman is gone.  I no longer believe that I can plow through.  Now these dis-eases signal something beyond the immediate experience.  They portend big time trouble.  Almost any ache or pain seems a signal that my body is weakening, and my days are numbered.

A few years ago, I entered a period of feeling tired all the time, and thought:  Oh, this must be what it’s like being old.  Instead of plowing through, I was inclined to resign myself.  Wasn’t that the mature way?  Just in case, though, I saw a doctor, who diagnosed me with anemia, caused by a hiatal hernia.  Surgery stopped the bleeding that led to the hernia and my energy returned.

It turns out to be easy to conflate illness and aging; in my desire to be wise in the way of aging, I resigned myself to decline far too readily.  Now I found myself in search of a more balanced view: being strong; being alert; taking care of my body and my difficulties; and finding a philosophical perspective to accept my increasing vulnerability.  I needed a perspective that found strength in holding all of these views together at the same time.

When the flu arrived last week, though, all of this wisdom flew out the window.  There was something disorienting about the inward focus it brought.  How to lay still, how to cough less, drip less, eat less.  How to time my medicine to minimize my headache.  In fact, I felt like an addict, looking forward to my next fix of Tylenol.  The outside world grew distant, unimportant.  My body was all.  I felt like I was floating through time, occasionally noting the outside world, as though threw the thick glass of an institutional window.

I imagined that this is what it feels like to be really old.  There is a transition that the researchers talk about between the “young old” and the “frail old.”  The young old are often still vigorous, active, optimistic.  The frail old are largely confined by their illnesses, their vulnerability, and their isolation.  Even when they are with people, the connection can feel tenuous, insubstantial.  Somewhere in my cloudy consciousness, I knew that I wasn’t yet at this point, but I could see it.  It was like the island at the end of life’s journey was well within view.

To combat the disorienting, floating, inward focus of illness, most of us seek an external anchor, like finding a large object to focus on when growing dizzy.  Often it’s some way to keep busy:  a simple task like folding laundry.  And keeping busy helps for a while.

The busyness exercise is also true when healthy, especially during retirement.  We busy ourselves to keep our mind off of our troubles, our fears, the inevitability that things will get worse.  Mostly we keep busy to avoid a dizzying internal focus.  So we keep to our routines, develop projects, travel plans.

To be honest, though, keeping busy has never been my cup of tea.  It feels useless and superficial.  It feels deceitful.  I can’t stop judging myself when I am “just” keeping busy.

Purpose—or a sense of purpose—feels better.  Purpose ranges from the very simple: I want to get well and will devote myself to it; I want to help with the grandchildren so my children can pursue their careers; I want to volunteer, to do my little part in making the world a better place.  All of these approaches take my mind, at least temporarily, off of myself.  When I feel purposeful, I don’t feel self-centered.  I feel part of something larger than myself.

Feeling purposeful, I suppose, is as strange an experience as the zombie-like disorientation of illness.  When we enter its zone, it’s as though a giant magnet gathers all the molecules that were drifting and colliding during our inward focus and pulls them in a single direction.  We feel aligned.  For a moment, at least, our energies and values flow together.  We get off that great, slow conveyor belt that has been pulling us into the world of the frail old person, who will one day inhabit our body and minds.  As we step off that conveyor belt, as we feel the magnetic pull of purpose, our vitality is restored and extended—at least for the present..

As my flu receded,, I pushed myself to attend a few meetings and got back to writing my blog.  I called friends to see how they were doing.  Nothing earth- shattering, but I felt more like a participant than a victim of some demonic process of aging.

I don’t want to act like Pollyanna here.  Most of us, if we’re lucky, are headed for that frail old stage.  During this part of our journey, feeling purposeful, feeling like we matter, will be harder to come by.  But the opportunities will always be there.