It was the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Biblical images of the Houston flood were engraved on my retina. I had dropped my grandson, Eli, at his home in Needham after a couple of hours of basketball and Sudoku. WGBH was on the radio and the deep male voice was reviewing the particular vulnerability of the elderly during storms. I had seen picture after picture of old people being rescued from their roofs, despairing at the loss of all that they had called home.
My four and a half year old grandson, Jack, and I had collected supplies from neighbors to send to Houston. A gesture, a paltry contribution. There are hundreds of millions of people like me, though, watching from afar, for whom the hurricanes are immensely evocative, and no amalgam of fascination and guilt can eliminate our experience. So I decided to share my own in common cause with that distant multitude.
At first, I sympathized but didn’t identify with the victims of Harvey, nor the impending suffering of those in Irma’s path. I didn’t feel like an old man. I felt above it all, like I could deal with the winds and the cascading waters, the food shortages, and surrounding pain. I told myself that I would be helpful to others. I would man the rescue boats. I would serve food and water at shelters. I would help to rebuild the wreckage. I would not be a burden to others. And, as I sat in my Toyota Camry on Route 128 outside of Boston, I was immensely reassured by my bravado. In a guilty way, I felt good, grateful, almost celebratory.
For a while, I began to feel stronger and stronger, younger and younger. It was the type of musing I have experienced many times of late. In spite of the fact that I can no longer outrun Eli, Jack’s seven year old brother, I imagine myself running like the wind and leaping high fences as I once did. I reminded myself that my planned knee replacement would prepare me for the adventures I’d loved in the past. Unhindered by the bone-on-bone grind of my knee that made hiking downhill too painful, I made mental plans to renew my backpacking journeys into the High Sierras. I might play tennis again. Maybe I’d enter 75-and-older tournaments or prepare for 80-and-older tournaments where I’d surely win a prize.
These fantasies are so real that they aren’t just fantasies. They are a regular, almost tangible, part of my life. I love to lie down on the coach and let them ripple over me like slow moving stream. I go to sleep with them. They are among my closest companions. And I’ve felt no need to rid myself of them. They don’t seem to impede my judgment. They are my friends and I can leave them and go home to reality whenever I want.
Then my musings were interrupted by the radio commentator. He began to list the dangers that old and disabled people needed to guard against. In preparation for the Irma, old people needed to make sure they had a good supply of their medications, food, and contacts. They could be stranded, unable to fend for themselves, brought to shelters without clothing and reassuring objects. He actually said that we should bring the equivalents of our baby blankets and stuffed animals. He talked about living for days and weeks at a shelter, feeling dirty and disheveled all the time, sharing showers and toilets with hundreds, maybe thousands of others. My bravado began to wane.
I grew more and more aware of how much I depended on my safe home, safe income, relative health, loving family, community and friends. I became aware of what I’ve got in ways that felt less abstract than they usually do. I might feel strong now but how will I feel in five years.
I listened more carefully to the announcer’s advice. Make sure your house is secure, he said. Check. Make sure we are “storm-ready.” What are my frailties and medical conditions? Do I have supplies to wait out the storm alone or with my wife? Can I live without electricity and senior care services? Check for now but maybe not for long. What about my ability to communicate with others who might help or whose safety worries me as much as my own? What about the emotional toll of losing my home, my friends, my family? I could not prepare for that.
In our age of hurricanes and floods, these fears are not unfounded but, for most of us, they are extreme. They represent worst case scenarios. Yet, as I drove along, they reminded me of the many vulnerabilities that, most of the time I keep at arm’s length. Normally I hold these fears at a subconscious level, which means they can and do surface from time to time. This was one of those times.
Unbidden, I thought of a friend who had recently died and another who has a recently diagnosed cancer. These days I read the obituaries with greater regularity and intensity. I watch with mixed feelings as my children grow more solicitous of my health—or when they refuse to do so. Serious and trivial anxieties float through consciousness and my dream life.
The other day, for example, I went to a bicycle store to look into a new bike with straight handle bars that won’t stress my neck and back the way my old racing bars do. I was excited and asked if I could come back the next day for a test run. “Sure,” he said; and almost immediately, I felt a little deflated. I wondered if this was a good thing to do. There would be no problem riding the bike but I could fall. I know a couple of older people who had crippled themselves by falling from bicycles. I don’t know what I will do but I was taken aback by how quickly and vividly the awareness of vulnerability had invaded my mind.
It’s not that the vulnerabilities are lurking like some terrible snake in the grass, ready to pounce. Not most of the time. But they are there and they probably should be there. We need to be safe.
That brings me back to hurricane season. Sometimes I feel intensely for all people, young and old, caught in these disasters. I am also inclined to deflect these feelings and to protect myself from my own feelings by turning matters into politics—“What the hell will wake these climate deniers up?” But the catastrophes, continental and personal, are here and imminent. I need to face them.
For the most part, I do so with a simultaneous sense of vulnerability and gratitude. I try not to make more of the vulnerabilities than they deserve, and I give myself permission to savor the health and strength that remain to me.