The 84-Year-Old on the Ladder


A step too far.

In the midday Florida sun, one of our neighbors was up on a ladder, painting his fascias.

Not only was he up on a ladder, he was up on a ladder whose back feet were propped on a two-by-four. Verne would tell you, as he did me, that the ladder was propped up a bit so that it would tilt forward, against the wall of the house, making a spill less likely.

But still, our neighbor was up on a ladder, in the heat of midday, at 84 years of age, with two blood cancers doing their level best to cramp his style, severe neuropathy in both feet, and a fairly-new hip replacement.

He was, as well, till I showed up, up there all alone and unsupervised, his 80-ish wife off at Bible study.

I hoped she was praying. For me as well as for Verne, as I was about to light into him.

"What are you doing, Vernon!" I asked, looking up and shading my eyes. At this moment, the breeze -- did I mention it was gusting at 25mph? -- lifted his cloth cap, not tethered to his head, onto the roof. I retreated to my car to fetch him my own battered straw, with its trusty chin-strap, which he donned, if a bit grudgingly. It, too, took flight a minute or so later.

"I'm painting my fascias," said Verne. "I enjoy doing things like this!"

I paused, watching him drip white paint on his house's blue trim (the entire house is really in need of new paint; not simply the fascias). And then, Verne and I "set to," as I was damned if I was going to leave him there, painting, atop a ladder, with no one home and no one to notice if and when he tumbled.

I was damned if I was going to let another fool man I loved do himself in by tying up his feelings of self-worth -- his masculinity, itself -- in tasks any teenager with just borderline intelligence but much better powers of proprioception could handle easily.

I have a lot of history in the Department of Watching Pig-headed Men Die on my watch due to their, well, pig-headedness.

My father, a college professor who, like Verne, thoroughly enjoyed the simple arts of yard work and carpentry, blew out an aortic aneurysm at the age of 57 after pulling a tree stump out of the ground... with his bare hands. He left behind a wildly grieving 52-year-old wife and 20-year-old daughter, but I suppose he went to his grave... "a man": in the arena of man-versus-stump, he'd made his point.

I miss my father every day of my life -- and I've now lived longer than he -- but, on my late mother's behalf, she who was never happy again once she'd lost him, and my own, I bear the man an evergreen grudge: he died of stupid, senseless, unbecoming pig-headedness. A man in late middle age, he died "competing with himself," with the young, more vital man he had once been.

Verne's and my conversation did not go well. He kept assuring me that he knew what he was doing (of that, we were both certain from the git-go, of course), and that he was, as well, fully able to do it. He wasn't. He isn't. The man has either little feeling or, alternatively, pain and parasthesias, in both feet and, I am quite sure, is not "happy in his body" most of the time.

Up on the 2-by-4, and the ladder, and in his shoes, he was three degrees of separation from terra firma, and many more degrees of common sense away from plumb.

My goal was to annoy, infuriate, and distract Verne until his wife got home, and I was quite willing to risk our very-valuable-to-me friendship to do so.

Of course, Verne remembers, perhaps even a short decade ago, at 74, feeling much, much better. He began as a farm boy; then morphed into a soldier and a paratrooper; and, finally, ended his "active duty" in life as an academic and a fierce golfer. Verne still cuts a figure, though he is somewhat stooped now, and has an arresting smile and electric-blue eyes. His wife, my husband, and I can attest to the fact that, even at 90, Verne will be to us all fully "a man," and a beloved figure in our large neighborhood. But Verne isn't content, it seems, to attract the love of women, friends, and children: if he's no longer a man of action, a man on a ladder, a man able to perform the many, if brainless, functions of the young, then... he'd rather, what?

Fall off a ladder, apparently.

From which fall, I and his wife are certain, he would not recover. The statistics regarding the fate of those who plunge from ladders in old age are unequivocal, and I am sure Verne, being web-literate and still possessed of all his wits, knows them.

So, why this pig-headedness? Why this long verbal fight in the sun with three people who care about him deeply (because, eventually, the "discussion" involved another neighbor, a man who's lost the use of one shoulder due to, himself, falling off a ladder, and my husband, a jazz musician, who would rather poke himself in the eye than go up a ladder)?

I suspect the simple reason lies in Verne's surface belief that, if he can't do such things as prune his palm trees, paint his fascias, and drive... he will no longer see himself as a man, as manly. The deeper "reason," of course, has to do with the hard-wired competitiveness of men, in general. And the competition is always with the man's younger self, that testosterone-charged hunk in his rear-view mirror who could, in the old man's eyes, do so much more, and do it all so much better, and so much more quickly.

Old Verne's worst enemy, right now, is Young Verne.

In 1989, when I was a young woman in my 30s, I fell in love with a man in his 60s, and lost him, in the first year of our relationship, because he would not -- despite serious epilepsy -- give up the "things of youth." He experienced a status epilepticus seizure while on a long ocean swim in the midday sun, and drowned before my eyes. I had to move heaven and earth to get the Greek authorities to conduct a search for his body, and it took me 15 years to come to grips with the event on paper.

It took that long, too, for me to acknowledge my anger at him: I had pleaded and begged, for the sake of our love, but he would not give up the sea, or mountain-climbing, or any of the other selfish, pig-headed, testosterone-fueled feats that fed his male ego, his precious sense of self. When he went into the Aegean that last time, in 1989, he was choosing himself over us, his idea-of-masculinity over engagement-with-others... and I swore, when I came to my senses, that I would never again involve myself with "high-wire walkers."

Verne's wife, a very gentle and (needless to say) long-suffering soul who has gracefully and elegantly given up the things of young womanhood, and who seems quite secure in her role as a "lovely crone," despite a tremor in her neck and, I am sure, all the other nagging aches and pains of old age, came home just after we had managed to frustrate Verne's attempts to get rid of us and continue painting.

She's, since then, been beside herself.

But Verne tells her he's determined to paint... the rest of the house.

So... I am using this essay to serve notice on my friend.

I've lost two men I loved with all my heart to the sheer pig-headedness of the ageing male, and I will not bear witness to, nor sanction with my silence, a third loss. If Verne is determined to go up on a ladder, between now and the end of this current incarnation of his, he's going to have to do so at the cost of my friendship.

He has a choice: my love and respect... or the ladder.

Our bodies speak to us in no uncertain terms as we age and, after 50, they speak more and more clearly.

In my 30s, I was a runner. In my 40s and 50s, I was a Yogini, and a teacher of Iyengar Yoga. In my late 50s, as a result of asking entirely too much of my spine, I broke my back while actually performing Yoga, and underwent spinal fusion surgery. At 64, I know I can no longer execute the sinuous and demanding Yoga asana I so reveled in as a younger woman: my cervical spine simply will not have it, and I pay for my flexibility, and my own pig-headedness, with three-day-migraines... if I do not remember, and obey, my body's simple command: "Thou shalt not, ever, compete with thy younger self!"

If I teach Yoga, now, I teach only the basics, and confine my exercise to gentle laps in the pool, walking, and a gym routine that favors my fragile neck.

I get instant feedback, in the form of those horrific headaches, if I ask my neck to do what it did so readily till I was 60.

In fact, I now think of my neck as an intelligent entity in its own right, and the member of my little democracy-of-the-body with the deciding vote. My legs and arms and back may all want to do Yoga postures out of a Level III class: my neck weighs in, emphatically, with, "Over my, and your, dead body!"

But Verne seems not to have a similar "governor." And I believe men, especially young men, are genetically programmed to view, and treat, themselves as cannon fodder. Not only do they generally overestimate their fitness (for any task), but they push their mortal flesh to perform beyond their abilities, from early adolescence to the grave.

Men seem hard-wired to view themselves as immortal, all evidence to the contrary.

And men, protecting their "agency," and their "independence from women," seem quick to jettison common sense, the feedback provided by pain and suffering... and even the hard-won peace of a long marriage.

A marriage upon which old men, in particular, depend.

I would say to Verne that, yes, he does still have a choice. He does still have agency. His manhood, in all our eyes, is intact. And none of what defines him, none of what must truly fulfill him, or preserve his sense of self-esteem, is wrapped up in painting fascias from atop a ladder.

At 84, he's going to have to sit down and have a think about what he does, as a man, as a human being, from here on out.

I wish I could lend him my neck, for a bit, to teach him the art of letting go.

In I Corinthians, there is a passage I would have Verne consider: "when the perfect comes, the partial passes away. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I set aside childish ways."

And this is what I take from those words: Change is an inescapable reality. "Suspended" in rapidly ageing vehicles-of-flesh, we perceive ourselves, early on, as emperors, or empresses, of action. We delight in our flesh, and explore all its strengths and joys and capabilities. But, then, the rules change, and we find -- increasingly, every day -- that we now inhabit less and less space, and enjoy less and less mobility, flexibility, sheer balance, and physical agency. Childish things are now beyond, and behind, us.

As we enter old age, then, we have a choice: we can continue "reasoning like a child," and acting like children, or we can explore other options. We can work at becoming sages, and crones, and comforters, and explorers, and adepts in realms where the flesh cannot go. We can choose the perfected over the partial.

Or die, up on ladders, attempting to be who we were at 25.


I have only one further thing to tell Verne, and that is the (abbreviated, for the purposes of this short essay) story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French actor, author and editor best known for writing a striking memoir... very late in life.

The Wikipedia entry on Bauby reads: "On 8 December 1995, at the age of 43, Bauby suffered a massive stroke. When he woke up 20 days later, he found he was entirely speechless; he could only blink his left eyelid. Called locked-in syndrome, this is a condition wherein the mental faculties remain intact but most of the body is paralyzed. In Bauby's case, his mouth, arms, and legs were paralyzed, and he lost 27 kilograms (60 lb) in the first 20 weeks after his stroke.

Despite his condition, he wrote the book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking when the correct letter was reached by a person slowly reciting the alphabet over and over again using a system called partner-assisted scanning. Bauby composed and edited the book entirely in his head, and dictated it one letter at a time. To make dictation more efficient, Bauby's interlocutor, Claude Mendibil, listed the letters in accordance with their frequency in the French language. The book was published in France on 7 March 1997. Bauby died suddenly from pneumonia two days after the publication of his book, and he is buried in a family grave at the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France."

At 43, unable to move any part of his body but his left eyelid, Jean-Dominique Bauby was faced with a grim choice: define his humanity by impossible-to-achieve, "childish," standards, or (with rage and sarcasm, to be sure) acknowledge the hand fate had dealt him, and create a new identity, amidst the ashes, so to speak, of his former self.

Compared with Bauby, Verne and I have very, very few challenges to speak of, and vast realms of experience and mastery to explore. Once we fold up our ladders for good.