I recently ran into an old school friend while we were in a rehab hospital after knee replacement surgery. I’ll call him Harold Fleener. Harold and I weren’t close in school but I have had many long conversations with him since we became reacquainted in the hospital. I’ve kept in touch with him since and have gotten to know him.
Hal was a pretty good athlete – one of those guys who was strong and agile but not particularly gifted; he was pretty good at all sports but never excelled at any. He played a lot of ball – baseball and basketball mostly and he got into distance running and bicycling. Everything for him had to be an all-out effort because of his limited talent. He learned that the one person who he always had a chance of beating was himself so he started to compete with his best personal performances in running and bicycling. He worked out with weights and always tried to lift more than he did last time, he lifted more than he should be lifting. He was about my size and had small bones. He worked construction for a long time and always worked hard. As a result, Hal just wore out his body.
He has had rotator cuff surgery on both shoulders and five knee surgeries including replacement of both knees. He is 85 years old and hates being old. His wife is 78. Hal was blessed with exceptionally good health until about ten years ago. He always took his health for granted and never spent much effort in thanking the person responsible. He had never taken a prescription pill except for pain resulting from one of his many surgeries. A few years back he discovered he had an atrial fibrillation and due to testing discovered that he had to have triple by-pass surgery. He is having trouble understanding this because he has always kept in good shape through exercise and a healthy diet. Additionally, he has developed chronic dizziness that the best medicine in the world is unable to diagnose. He constantly struggles to keep from falling when he is in a standing position.
Hal’s wife, we’ll call her Mary, has also taken some health hits – more than Hal actually. She has had two strokes and thyroid cancer. Fortunately, and with the help of God, she is recovering from all of them. Mary was a beautiful woman when she was younger. She is still a beauty but of course, time has taken a bit of the glow. Hal complains to her that he married a beautiful 17year-old girl and wasn’t informed that she was going to turn out to be a 78 year-old woman. Mary is too kind to remind him that he has regressed too, and from a not so handsome start.
I have gotten to be very close to Hal and he confides in me. AS I stated, we spend a lot of time together. Sometimes he grows very despondent although he and Mary are surrounded, albeit with great distance geographically, by family love and support. They are LDS as I am so they are very confident of their long range future but Hal sometimes worries about the short term problems. He combats this by always being able to joke about it. One of his favorite lines when some of his young friends get on his case is to get real close to them and tell them, “Look at me real close! Take a long long hard look! Right now, you young punks are feeling pretty good about life but someday you’re going to look just like me.”
Hal is in some serious pain. He has arthritic pain in his shoulders from the surgery he had years earlier. He has developed a problem in his right replaced knee. His lower bone has thinned and the metal knee above it protrudes over the edge of the lower bone and his tissue hangs up on it. He first discovered it while asleep. He woke up screaming in pain and totally confused as to the cause. He had to work himself to the edge of the bed and slowly straighten his leg out. He had several occasions when this happened, both awake and asleep and it frankly scared him. There isn’t much you can do about a knee replacement that has gone bad. He has learned how to control it when awake by careful movement of his leg. Folks who don’t have faith in God may not understand but Harold had a priesthood blessing by his son-in-law and the pain in his knee has been much less intense. Another thing that bothers Hal is that he is no longer able to work out. This has put a serious crimp in his life style.
Because of the pain and his heart problem, he is taking around 30 pills a day. He tells me he isn’t sure exactly sure how many he takes because he loses count, or forgets what he is counting, or Mary will interrupt him. I think he just really doesn’t want to know. He takes pain pills every four hour around the clock. He can’t sleep without ambien! It’s not all bad, though, he saves a lot on their entertainment expense. They have four movies and they watch one a day. By the time they get back to the first one, they have forgotten what it was about. It does present a problem, however, when they can’t remember where they put the movies…or how to operate the thing they put the disks in to make the TV play them.
He and Mary are both stricken with hearing problems and conversation becomes a problem. “What” is frequently answered by “huh,” or vice versa. Mary suggested that they tape a day’s activity and sell it to a TV show. It has to be more entertaining than most of the reality shows they watch.
Some days when we are speaking seriously, Hal tells me that he would like to die tomorrow and get it over with but the thing that worries him most is leaving Mary. He knows that their children love Mary too much to ever let her need anything but Hal feels that no one could love her like he does or take care of her as well as him. Hal and Mary, fortunately, are fairly well off with excellent health care coverage. They have no bills other than day to day living expenses. Hal worries about how his death will hurt his children and their children and is saddened by knowing that he will not be around to see his grandchildren and great grandchildren develop and take their place in the world.
Hal tells me that it is hard for a younger person to understand what goes on in the mind of an 85 year old man with health problems that could end his life at any time. One of his biggest concerns is getting to the point that he can no longer drive. He has grown up being able to handle anything confronting him. What if this ends while he is still alive. He wonders, when he sees a loved one or a friend who he doesn’t see regularly, if it is the last time he will see them again. He wonders if he will ever meet the new additions to his family. He is saddened that the new great grandchildren will never know him (or their wonderful grandmother). He is saddened to know that if he hasn’t had an impact on the world around him that he never will have. It is what makes an old man want to write about things around him or to plant a palm tree in the front yard. His daughter recently planted one for him and the tree reminds him of her. He is sure that the tree will also remind her if him.
Hal may well live another ten years. Only God knows. But Hal does know that he will be reunited with his mother and father and other loved ones and someday, all will be reunited.