Growing Old Disgracefully


by gaz regan

I’m a 66-year-old bartender/writer/teacher who has lived a pretty wild life of partying far too much and paying little or no attention to my health.  I’ve paid for that, of course, but I’m still alive and kicking, and I’m one of the happiest people you’ve ever met. I love my life.

That said, I should note that my smoking and drinking led to a 17 1/2-hour surgery for tongue cancer in 2003, and I’ve had various other ailments common to many in my age group—high blood pressure, partial deafness in one ear, a severely broken ankle that was really hard to mend, and the usual list of age-related maladies that can be managed with medication. My thyroid’s behaving itself these days.

I’ve tried really hard to look after myself since my cancer surgery in 2003, but I must admit that there are times when you’ll still find me partying with a bunch of bartenders half my age till the wee hours in the morning.  Growing older, in my book, is much like creating a good cocktail—balance is integral if you want to enjoy it.

And I am enjoying growing old. I love the freedom that we get with age to say whatever we like, and do almost anything that I can afford to do providing my body lets me.  I visit my MD frequently to make sure my heart can still take a licking, and keep on ticking, and I do everything she tells me to do.  Seriously.  I’m not going to pay a doctor then ignore her expertise.

I go to the gym twice or three times a week, and I have a personal trainer who works with me every Wednesday morning.  I’m lucky enough to have found a trainer who really knows what she’s doing, and after over a year of following her lead, My range of motion in both arms and legs is now probably better than at any point in my life after the age of 15.

I practice yoga, too, and I’m what I describe as a “New Age Asshole,” who burns sage every morning, meditates regularly, and listens to the likes of spiritual leaders such as Ram Dass, Deepak Chopra, and Eckhart Tolle.  And I need to mention that I was a big fan of Tolle for years before Oprah ever heard of the man.

I hear others in my age group complain about their various aches and pains, and I know that I’m lucky inasmuch as I’m in fairly decent shape for a 66-year-old. But I also need to mention that, to the best of my knowledge I never complained once about my cancer or any other ailment that’s hit me along the way.  Why bother?  Happiness, I think, is all about attitude, and whereas it might be easier to mope around poor-me-ing myself all day, I find that looking on the bright side is always the best policy.

Take my tongue cancer, for instance.  My cancer was stage two so my surgery involved removing the left side of my tongue and replacing it with a rectangle of skin that the surgeon removed from my forearm. They also removed a number of infected lymph nodes from my chest, and they lay some sort of radiation “beads” on my open wounds to try to make sure the deal was sealed.

I’m not being tough when I tell you that the operation wasn’t that hard to get through, and recovery wasn’t bad either until, a few weeks after my operation, I started a six-week course of radiation that culminated, in the final two or three weeks, in the most excruciating constant pain that I’ve ever endured. I probably complained some while this was going down, but I honestly don’t remember much about it.

I lost 55 pounds in six weeks.  I couldn’t put anything into my mouth. It burned like a son-of-a-bitch.  The doctors, scared by my rapid weight loss, threatened to put me back into the hospital so they could feed me intravenously, and that scared me so much that I started showing up for my treatment with rolls of quarters in my pockets.  When they weighed me each day it didn’t look quite so bad. I got away with it.

I learned lots during this period, and for me, the most interesting part of my recovery involved a man I hadn’t seen for about 10 years prior to my illness. He was a friend of a friend who had a severe cleft palate.

Harry Watson—not his real name—was about 10 years older than I, and I met him through a friend of a friend who proposed we did a little business together.  This went down well, though not for too very long, what I got out of observing Harry was absolutely priceless.

Most people with a cleft palate tend to be fairly quiet. They just don’t talk much, mainly, I guess, out of embarrassment. But it was hard to get a word in edgewise when Harry was around. He was a born raconteur, he usually had a woman at least 20 years his junior on his arm, and after spending not much more than five minutes with the man, his speech impediment just faded into the background. His cleft palate was not an impediment at all.

My speech was altered by my operation and radiation, but I remembered Harry, and I did my best to follow his lead. I talk and talk and talk.  My speech is far better now than it was right after the operation, but many people can hear that it isn’t perfect. I don’t care. Can people understand what I’m saying?  Yes, they can. And that’s all that concerns me.

There are times when people ask me to repeat myself, and if I know them well enough, this is when I use my favorite line: “Are you making fun of my speech impediment?”  Goes down pretty well if I do say so myself.

I’m not an extraordinary man. I fear pain more than most people, I think.  I have a friend who told me that I had a distinct “anticipation of pain” look that crosses my face when I think there’s a danger of someone hitting me—and in the bar business, these situations do crop up from time to time.

My secret, I guess, is that I choose to be happy, and I’ll do anything I can to keep that attitude alive. I could have moaned about my cancer for the rest of my life and few people would have blamed me. It was pretty drastic when all’s said and done. But instead, I chose happiness.  And happiness, I believe, is the most important thing in everyone’s life.

Events happen in all of our lives, I think, that makes us very sad. Losing our life savings in a court battle, the death of a loved one—human or animal—and all sorts of other inevitable events that each and every one of us endures.  Unhappiness, to some extent, is bound to find its way into all of our lives.  But if we can learn to indulge in our misery for a short time, then pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, we can start all over again.

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