It's a terrible thing, this getting old business

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Husband-and-wife journalists Bob Miller and Callie Clark Miller use this space to offer their views on everyday issues.

SHE SAID: "It's a terrible thing, this getting old."

That's what my grandfather always says to me. "Hi, papaw. How are you today," I'll ask as I come in the doorway of his rural Carter County home and find him sitting in his chair by the fireplace. "I'm not," he'll answer every time. "It's a terrible thing, this getting old business."

He has always been old to me -- he was 59 when I was born -- and pretty much retired from the family sawmill for as long as I can recall. But my parents can remember a younger, stronger man. Someone who could pack a railroad tie over his shoulder.

I remember him as unquestionably brave. Someone who could kill a wasp by squeezing it between his thumb and finger -- a feat unfathomable to a little girl terrified of bugs that sting.

It's been years -- maybe even a decade -- since my conversations with him haven't revolved around his suffering, though. In his 50s, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a degenerative nerve disorder, and was given just a few years to live. He didn't let it slow him down; he hefted the disease over his shoulder and packed it like a railroad tie for 30 long years.

The weight of it eventually took its toll, though -- bent his proud body into an unforgiving stoop and turned his straight-as-an-arrow walk into a haphazard shuffle.

Chronic arthritis knarled his hands. Cancerous growths marred his face and neck. Why, he wondered aloud, wasn't the Lord coming for him yet? He was ready, he told me time and again.

"Only God decides when that train pulls into the platform," I would respond, not too patiently. "In the meantime, you might as well sit back and enjoy life with the rest of us."

In recent years, his ailments drifted from the physical plane to the mental, causing severe dementia, hallucinations and other side effects that broke my family's hearts. At 84, my grandmother continued to care for him just as she had for 65 years; keeping stubbornly silent about her own health problems and refusing to see a doctor when the symptoms of those problems did surface.

Last week, papaw's train finally pulled into the station.

The day he passed away, my grandmother was diagnosed with late-stage cancer that has spread throughout her body -- completely untreatable. She has a few weeks to live, her doctor tells us.

After more than six decades by his side, she was lying in a hospital bed instead of sitting in the front pew at my grandfather's funeral last week. When I went to visit her, my brother met me outside the hospital with a message: "She says don't come in, Callie. She doesn't want you to see her like this." I went anyway. Going in wasn't the hard part; leaving her was. But isn't that the way life is?

After months of struggling to find the perfect name for our baby, we've finally settled on one -- Dawson, my grandmother's maiden name.

It isn't likely that she'll be here to meet her great-grandson, but she knows now that she'll still be a part of his life.

My dad and I talk on the phone every day, exchanging updates on how she's doing. Now it's his voice saying to me, "It's a terrible thing, this getting old business, Callie."

Callie Clark Miller is the online/special publications managing editor at the Southeast Missourian. Husband Bob Miller is the managing editor. Reach them at cmiller@semissourian.com or bmiller@semissourian.com.

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