Monday, January 20, 2014

Taking the Tybee Cure

Tybee Sunset  (photo by Robin Dreyer)        

With Tammy at the wheel we drove from Celo to Savannah through the monster storm that blanketed the south with rain and fog on January eleventh, my eighty-second birthday. As we crossed through the tree-lined streets of this charming Old South city, the rain abated and we saw a band of orange in the west with the sun made fuzzy by the straggling clouds. When we turned on to the Tybee road, the rain stopped and the clouds began to dissipate. As we moved further south toward our final destination, the sun broke through in the west and a rainbow appeared in the east with one leg on the left side of the road and the other on the right, giving us the illusion of driving under this bow of color. I was more than ready to accept it as a good omen. I’ve been hoping that my six-week stay on Tybee will be a turning point toward greater vitality. The year that just ended has been unrelentingly difficult for me and the toll my fall took on my wellbeing was only the beginning. Although my injured shoulder has steadily improved, I still have problems that started with the injuries I sustained: adhesions, localized pain, limited range of motion.

I had a conversation with my cardiologist about a year ago, after he had pronounced my heart stable and added “That’s great.” Since I didn’t really feel great, I quizzed him specifically about my capacity to improve—that is to have more energy. He responded that healthy people in their eighties can generally expect to hold their ground and even achieve the kind of improvement I desire. He went on to say that in your nineties it is hard to maintain your status quo, and most people lose ground to the aging process. Well then, I still have time!

One of my writing friends recently posed the question, “What does it mean to have a vacation when you’re retired?” My answer to that is that every December I am ready for a break from the routines and obligations of my Celo life. As it comes close to time for my winter respite on Tybee, I am usually excessively busy. Bill used to call the period from Thanksgiving to my birthday the “Celebration Season” It included Thanksgiving, our wedding anniversary, sometimes Hanukkah, Advent, Christmas, New Year’s, our son Kevin’s birthday, Epiphany and my birthday—all in six weeks. This year I had more company and more drop-in visitors than usual, and as always, I was simultaneously working on my to-do list for closing up my house and packing the clothes, books, projects, utensils, and technology for the temporary move.

Once we arrive at whatever house I have rented, we have the reverse process of unpacking and setting up the space to meet my needs. Even though my children do the bulk of the work, there are always many decisions to make and my personal unpacking to do. A year ago I was in a state of exhaustion from that process when I snapped the leash on Nigel’s collar and set out for a walk the day after Kevin and his wife Indi left. A heavy rain that morning made puddles out of potholes and small streams had formed along the curbs. I misjudged the width of one of those streams, caught my shoe on the curb, and went down for the count, which turned out to be 365 days! Physical therapy and some alternative approaches to recovery continued throughout the year. I made the most progress working with Astra, my Feldenkrais practitioner, so I brought along the exercise table she loaned me. It enables me to follow lessons on CD’s without the added difficulty of getting down on the floor and back up when I’m finished.

Concurrently with the rehabilitation effort, I was dealing with the emotional and physical stress of a series of age-related issues (vision, an arthritic knee, chronic coughing, and the investigation of a growth that turned out to be benign). I also had an accident with the car and decided to stop virtually all driving.

As the months went by I was conscious of feeling old and became aware that I was also acting old. My focus was on staying safe. Instead of noticing the beauty of the world and the antics of the dog when I was walking, I was constantly scanning the road for hazards. I felt timid, cautious and self-absorbed. One day in late December I was carefully making my dinner in the kitchen, preoccupied with safety and not even noticing the wonderful scent of onions and garlic gently cooking in olive oil. Suddenly I had a moment of full awareness of all the tension in my body, my bent-over posture, and the absence of my usual delight in cooking.  I said out loud, “Just because you had a fall, you don’t need to act old.”  I spent the rest of that day in a conscious mindfulness of how I moved, what I was thinking, and how much my veneer of oldness was actually voluntary. 

This year I have come to Tybee not just to have a break from the winter weather and my routines, but also to “take the cure” that is based on the milder weather, walking on flat, sea-level terrain, drinking in the beauty of the ocean, sand, sky, and the lush low country vegetation. As always I will also find nourishment in the silence of meditation. To this I have added the Feldenkrais work and exercise with hand weights and a theraband.  I expounded on my plan to my children when we first arrived. Tammy (always practical and often wise) told me she thought it was a good idea to rebuild my strength, spirit, stamina, and courage, but I shouldn’t set my expectations so high that I would be disappointed.

The question I ask myself is how I can find the balance between accepting old age as an immutable factor and not shortchanging my potential to rebuild. Because I have commited myself to finding the answer, I was thrilled to embrace the blessing from the welcoming Tybee rainbow. I need all the help I can get.