"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, October 6, 2014

Carter Pence And The Metaphysics Of Aging

Carter Pence was getting old.  He was still far from Lincoln’s four score and seven, not even spitting distance, but it was more over the near horizon than the far.  The irony of it was that he didn’t feel old.  He could remember who did what to whom in all of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays and could remember longish bits from even the minor soliloquies. 

Yes, on occasion he got halfway up the stairs and couldn’t remember for the life of him why he was headed to the bedroom; but these minor lapses happened to everyone, especially to those like him who had a lot on and in his mind, and he had no signs of the Alzheimer’s which addled the brain of his favorite aunt.  By the time she died, not that much older than he, she lived in an imaginary world of mythical fantasy.

“The Pope came to Green Meadows”, she told him once, referring to her retirement home.  “I admired the gold embroidery on his cassock and the red trim on his chasuble, and told him his little red shoes were the cutest things I had ever seen.  He said he would send over his tailor and haberdasher and fix me up with whatever I wanted.  Such a nice man.”

No, Carter Pence was in fine fettle.  He went to the gym every day, walked three miles, slept like a baby, and needed no prunes or milk of magnesia to keep regular. Then a few years ago things began to happen. The little twinge in his leg was not the groin pull he thought, but a hip gone bad.  High notes disappeared, road signs became harder to read, and his feet were becoming as horny and ugly as a goat’s hoof.  In other words, bit by bit, Carter Pence began falling apart.

“I’m just like my Camry”, he said to himself, thinking about the twenty-year old Toyota which had given him impeccable service until a year ago.  The annoying rattle in the front end turned out to be bad shocks.  The whine in the steering wheel when he turned was a shaky pinion.  The oil smudge in the driveway was a leaking crankcase, and the light blue tinge to the exhaust when he started up on cold mornings meant bad compression and pitted valves.  The car didn’t just die on the Beltway and quit on him once and for all. It was death by a thousand cuts – first the fuel pump, then the tie rods, then the catalytic converter, and finally the windshield.  The insignificant and hardly noticeable crack in the corner had now spread out like a spider web, finally obscuring his vision.  One by one, the pieces of the beautifully engineered car fell off.

He remembered how Paul Weiss, his philosophy professor at Yale had challenged his class by telling the story of his ‘39 Ford.  Like Carter’s Camry, one by one parts of the car wore out or failed; and after five years every piece of the car had been replaced.  “Was it still the same ‘39 Ford?

Carter knew the answer now after more than fifty years removed from his class on metaphysics.  Of course it was till the same bloody Camry.  Even if he replaced every last gasket and 3/4” bolt, it would still smell like dog, candy wrappers from some long-forgotten Halloween would still be wedged between the seats, and the seats would sag and buckle from years of abuse.

“Well, Mr. Pence”, said his ophthalmologist, “I’m afraid we’re going have to do some minor surgery on that right eye of yours….Unless, of course, you want to trade in your old eye for a new one”.  She chuckled at her own joke, but Carter didn’t think it funny at all.  Bionic eyes as well as tongues, ears, and and toenails would soon be reality, but not within his lifetime.  He would be pushing up daisies when they came on the market.

He had the laser surgery and his vision improved; but not more than six months after the surgery, he began to see bright lights and spots in his left eye.  He assumed that the surgeon had fucked up, zapped some stray ganglions on the optic nerve, and made him squint and peer.  “Nothing of the sort, Mr. Pence”, the doctor said jovially.  “Just a few minor anomalies we’ll have to take care of.”

Carter Pence kept good records, and his ‘Repair’ files on both the Camry and on his body grew fatter at the same pace.  It seemed like God was playing cruel, ironic tricks on him, because no sooner did the fuel pump go than the cardiologist found a “minor, but still disturbing arrhythmia” in his heart. The exhaust system failed inspection at the same time that his own colon started acting up and invasive procedures were recommended. He needed new glasses and a new windshield.  A hearing aid and a tune-up.

He didn’t have a superstitious or religious bone in his body, but this untimely turn of events rattled him. He began staying longer and longer in bed in the morning because lying there in his quiet, dark room, immobile on his feather bed he didn’t have to hear, see, feel, or smell anything. If there was anything wrong with his eyes, ears, or legs, he would never know it.  He didn’t want to know it was the whole point; and only after his wife pointed out to him that his behavior was becoming very weird, did he snap out of it and get up at a reasonable hour.

At the same time, however, he began to drive the Camry less and less.  His wife wondered why he took the N6 or walked the mile to the Red Line when driving would have been much easier and quicker.  There was no way for her to put together his two neurotic aversions, so she assumed that he was becoming greener or wanted the exercise of walking up the hill to the bus stop and Metro.  He didn’t drive, of course, because he didn’t want to hear the pings, rattles, coughs, and splutters that meant CAR REPAIR, and the further disassembly of his car.  If he didn’t drive the Camry, then he could maintain the fiction that all was fine and dandy; but the minute he fired her up, the wheezing, tapping, and banging would most certainly start up.

“I’ve got to get a grip on myself”, he said.  “No more wussy hiding from reality. I need to prepare for the end of my life not hide from it.”

Easier said than done, of course; and it again took his wife to point out that he no longer looked in the mirror when he brushed his teeth or shaved (if there was a cancerous mole growing on his cheek, he would never see it) and recently took to doing all is ablutions in the dark.  He closed one eye when he put on his socks so he wouldn’t have to see the blemishes, bruises, and wheals on his legs that might be there; and avoided the word puzzles in the Post that he loved to figure out.

He debated discussing all this with his doctor, a kindly man only a few years his junior who understood him as a whole person and was always ready to listen to his gripes, unfounded concerns.  The doctor had told him on more than one occasion that if his worries got too bad, he would prescribe something.  “Nothing strong, mind you.  You’re not exactly going off the deep end.”

In fact a doctor could change a patient’s anti-depressants every day of the year, and there would still be plenty to choose from.  “We’ll find just the right one for you”, the doctor said.  Pence thought that the doctor would hand him a Sears catalogue to thumb through to see what seemed a good fit, but only smiled good-bye and sent him off insisting that Carter call him “if his condition changed”.

The years went by and both Carter and the Camry continued to fall apart.  Eventually he got rid of the old buggy and bought a new one.  “Irma”, he said to his wife. “This will be the last car we will ever own”. 

He wished there were some Car Max for bodies.  Sell the old one, and head down to New Car Alley on Leesburg Pike for a new model; but he knew that even the rattiest used body dealership would offer him nothing for his increasingly damaged and ill-functioning crate.

He gave suicide serious consideration.  “Why wait until the wheels come off?”, he thought; but he quickly came to his senses.  A secular humanist to the marrow of his bones, he thought that even in the twilight of his life he would still be able to read Cymbeline again or write a rhymed couplet.

So he continued to fall apart like the rest of us, but modern medicine kept the rubber on the road.  He had prosthetics for just about everything, drugs to keep his heart and liver on an even keel, electronic devices to assure that important rhythms kept time.

I met Carter Pence for coffee a few months ago, and he looked remarkably well.  He had had just about everything replaced that he could, and had the pharmacopeia of the Greeks coursing through his veins.  “I’m still kicking”, he said, “or should I say that my motor is still running on all cylinders”.  I had become familiar with his odd car metaphors and always sang from the same hymnbook when I met him.  “As long as there’s still gas in the tank”, I said this time. 

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