Dad’s running days are over, as are his cycling days. In fact, even his walking days are over. His walker days, however, have arrived, though he still refuses to use the big blue walker. During his jogging career, Dad ran 13 marathons. His training regimen included running seven miles a day during his lunch break, and 20 miles on Saturdays. He and other Johnson & Johnson attorneys and executives enjoying running together in Johnson Park along the Raritan River. After changing into his running shorts one day, he bolted from the locker room to join the jogging group. One attorney in the group, a woman, commented to him, “Nice shorts, Nelson.” He looked down to find himself wearing only his tight red underwear. In his hurry, he had neglected to slip on his running shorts. Darting back to the locker room, he soon returned more appropriately dressed. The group set off, and no one said another word about it. To Dad’s credit, he did not mind telling us children the story, many years later, including both horror and the humor of the episode.
Dad contracted polio in the early 1940s—so we believe—a mild case. His left leg developed with smaller muscles and no ligament support in the arch of the foot. Without thick homemade orthotics, he walks with his ankle bone on the floor. Ouch. Still, with resolve and grit, he compensated and persevered, taking up jogging as a health-hobby. He typically ran seven miles during his lunch break at work, and often 20 miles on Saturdays, for two decades. He clocked 13 marathons, and one 50-mile ultra-marathon (“I never got tired!”). For years, his resting heart rate was about 35 bpm. In his eighth decade of life, however, even walking has become nearly impossible. And not just due to the weak leg and foot, or from age, but from post-polio syndrome. No matter his exercise level, he cannot seem to strengthen, but continues to deteriorate. The Mayo Clinic says post-polio syndrome is characterized by progressive muscle and joint weakness and pain (check), general fatigue and exhaustion with minimal activity (check), and muscle atrophy (check). I have to remember, as we go to the gym, to walk the fine line between strengthening and debilitation, between rejuvenation and exhaustion. The last time we left the gym, he clung to my arm and worried, “I don’t know if I can make it to the car, Rog.” But Dad has such determination (“I am a fighter!”), and together we understand his desire to push himself right to the edge, to do all he can do, without tumbling over the cliff.
(This blog, author, and essay have no relationship with, and do not represent the views of, the Mayo Clinic.)
As part of Dad’s mobility strategy, on Friday I drove him to the county’s Dimple Dell recreation center to begin working out again. He had not gone to the gym since Covid-19 shut the country’s gyms down. We are always starting over in life, aren’t we? He is starting his gym workouts over at age 86! We both rode the stationary bicycles for 30 minutes—I read a book, while Dad looked at a blank television screen because the County can no longer afford satellite TV. Then Dad did his usual circuit, working out his biceps, chest, core, back, and legs. I worked on my core, mostly with planks, and my arms and chest. I think we will both be sore. Dad was pleased to see his old friend, Daniel, who struck up an ebullient conversation with Dad before moving on to chat cheerfully with the lady on the treadmill. Before starting our workout, I locked my wallet, phone, and keys in a keyed locker. Retrieving my belongings on our way out of the gym, Dad told me he is the reason the county purchased the lockers, because during one workout years ago, he watched a man walk by the open cubicles and swipe Dad’s key ring. Dad chased him down, called him out, and retrieved his keys with, “These are mine!” The man just kept on walking and got away. Walking to the car arm in arm with Dad, he commented weakly, “I feel pretty beat up, Rog.” But I could tell he also felt happy and satisfied, and was looking forward to next Friday. Me, too.
Dad stubbed his fourth toe against the couch at three in the morning. The toe pained him badly and turned black and purple. “I think I’ve broken my toe,” he announced to me the following day. Poor guy, I thought, there’s always one more thing. Fortunately, his regularly-scheduled podiatry appointment was only three days away. The podiatrist was so considerate as he clipped and ground, bandaged and lotioned, stockinged and shod. Childhood polio and 20 years of marathon running have taken their toll, eliminating ligaments and mashing bones. Was all that jogging and marathoning worth it? As a teenager, I saw Dad taking his pulse one evening. “Twenty-eight!” he cheered. His resting heart rate was about 30 beats per minute for two decades. I wondered how many heartbeats his exercise had saved him over those years, and if he were getting good use of them now at 85. His own father died of a heart attack at 59, before I was born. One Saturday morning in New Jersey, Dad did not come home from his 20-mile training run. I knew roughly his route, and Mom sent me in the station wagon to find him. That long run on that hot humid day had been too much, and I found him walking on Cranberry Road miles from home. I gave him a thermos of cool water, and we stopped at Claire’s market for fresh sweet corn on the cob, Jersey tomatoes, juicy peaches, and the most delicious crenshaw.
I spent the morning researching stair lifts, also known as chair lifts, the makes and models, the Acorns and Brunos, leasing verses purchasing, wondering if it were time to make that move. I hear Dad grunting on every step, and Mom wheezing at reaching the top. Sitting with them in their bedroom, I shared my research, and asked them what they thought about the idea, and the timing. Dad acknowledged that climbing the stairs is hard for him to do, but he can do it. He worries that once he stops doing a hard thing, he will lose the ability ever to do that hard thing again. He thinks it best to keep on exerting, fighting even, doing everything he can to be strong and capable. Mom and Dad had been going to the rec center six days a week before Covid shut down the nation’s gyms. They would make a circuit through the many machines, strengthening back and arms and legs and heart. He wants to go back, because his muscles have become soft. He knows he will be starting over again. I, too, seem to be always starting over after some injury or event (like moving) has knocked me out of my exercise routine. I used to become discouraged about always starting over, but now try to be grateful I have the opportunity to start over, building on yesterday’s strength, and to keep working at life’s challenges, believing that every effort at living ultimately is strengthening and redeeming. So, Mom and Dad said no to the stair lift, for now. Dad wants to keep working as hard as he can. He is not being stubborn about the stair lift, or walking, or working in his yard to the point of collapse (literally, like today, when he sank to the grass on shaking legs that just would not hold him up anymore, and crawled to the brick mailbox to claw his way back to his feet, while I stood inside obliviously baking a guava cream cheese tart, and how did no one driving by see him lying on the grass?). No, not stubbornness. Instead, he is fighting for his independence and his dignity and his strength, fighting for his life. That example I can absolutely respect and emulate.
After unfairly losing a big case in court in 2009, I knew that my stress would be the death of me and that I needed to change my lifestyle. So, I signed a gym contract and resumed my strength training and cardio workouts after a several-years hiatus. But with my new two-hour commute and duties at home, going to the gym has become impractical. “Unrealistic” is a better word, since 5:00 a.m. might be practical, but not realistic—it simply is not going to happen. I paid VASA’s unfair exit fees and said good-bye to the gym. Mom and Dad regularly ride their stationary bicycle, and I have resolved to ride it also, and to maintain my core-strengthening regimen: all praise the plank. I also strain at elastic bands to strengthen the shoulder I injured in a mountain biking accident. The floating clavicle of that separated shoulder will not let me do push-ups. But Dad showed me how he kneels on one carpeted stair and pushes off against a higher stair in an angled push-up, and I found I could do the same with small discomfort. I still ride my bike in the local canyons, but have slowed down and never take the jumps—my nearly 60-year-old body no longer bounces without breaking. After one wreck with four broken ribs (2017) and another with a level 3 shoulder separation (2019), I simply cannot take another fall.
“Mom,” I whispered to the cute lady napping in the plush recliner. Would you like to come get the mail with me?” “Sure,” she nodded groggily, such a good sport. We small-stepped arm-in-arm out the front door, past the pumpkins and mums, and toward the brick mailbox. Almost there, I suggested, “What do you say we first walk to the corner?” She would rather have not, but came along without protest. At the corner, I ventured, “Should we walk to the next corner, or turn around?” We had done what we both knew was helpful and enough, so we turned around, my arm crooked to fit hers, and tottered together to get the Church News, the bills, and the junk mail. Having exercised, we were ready for a French soup of pureed potatoes, carrots, and onions, mixed with chopped spinach and mushrooms sautéed in butter and salt, enriched with heavy cream, rosemary, salt, pepper, and a bit more butter. Très délicieux!
Old Man Walking
We drove to the park. So did he. Or perhaps someone drove him—that is more likely, perhaps. We drove to the Loops at Lovers Lane Park. Three of us, the youngest and fittest, were there to walk and jog the loose lime-finds path. Me, the oldest and least fit and least interested in being fit, was there to walk slowly, so I could see the sassafras leaves and the parasitic threads of poison ivy vines sucking on the sassafras and maple and beech and tulip polar trunks. I wished it were spring so I could gaze upward Continue reading