Some mornings are worse than others. There are days when I wake up before dawn with a cramp hardening the calf muscle on my left leg into a rigid burl, knotted and gnarled.
My grimace is a combination of agony, familiarity and resignation; it is not my first time on the rack watching the ratchet wheel turn. I stretch my toes toward my chin to elongate the Achilles tendon and loosen the grip of the spasm that has turned the calf rigid. Mercifully, the jaws of the vice open and the baseball sized knob relaxes, the muscles vibrating rhythmically under the skin, flickering like neuropathic strobe lights.
Gingerly placing the heels of my feet on the floor, I roll my ankles in half circles to loosen the tendons crisscrossing from arch to toes. Instantly I realize my mistake: the rolling motion that lengthens the calf is a seesaw that alternately contracts the elongated muscle embedded alongside the tibia. I am writhing in pain, my calf feeling like a cudgel carved from briar, contorted and misshaped.
I dig my thumbs into the rigid muscles, massaging the tender tissues with long, cajoling caresses. What feels like eons later the nervous system declares truce among its warring axons and dendrites and the cramp unties, leaving me limp, saturated in perspiration.
“What next?” I mumble to myself, limping to the bathroom. The answer comes without warning.
A paroxysm of pain tears through the arch of my left foot like the oblique rip of a serrated blade sawing through the bony arc between heel and metatarsals. I reel in agony, lurching against the medicine chest, somehow managing to fling open the mirrored door. On the bottom shelf is the plastic bottle of quinine tablets, the precious powdered leaf of cinchona officinalis that would ease my pain as digitalis to the trembling victim of a heart attack. I place two pills under my tongue and stifle my whining; then miracle of miracles, the bow in my arch straightens; the pain subsides as the sole of my foot relaxes.
Okay, okay, a bit exaggerated. But I do admit to being creaky and making funny noises before I get warmed up and it is true some days are worse than others. There are mornings when I am hurting and getting out of bed requires some curious yogic twisting and contortions.
I don’t welcome the stiffness and the aches. But I handle it. I remind myself that waking up in some pain does not equate to becoming ineffective and irrelevant. I regard it as a metaphor for the psychic pain I grappled with for too many years. I breathe into the pain and I feel relief.
I look back at my life with a lot more compassion, recognizing it wasn’t all cynicism and competition and pursuit of the corner office; there were accomplishments and friendships and inestimable creative satisfaction. My time as husband and father was considerably more than angst and argument and regret; there were shared events and acts of generosity and limitless unconditional love.
And having seen there was ample good along with the bad, I can be grateful for the moment when at last, I forgave myself and left behind the shame and regret associated with long past events.
I have closed the “What if…” file. I am content with the “This is it” file. I am comfortable in my own wrinkly skin. Instead of bemoaning the unfulfilled ambitions of youth I am reviving them as present day aspirations. I have written books; I write this blog; I do workshops; I edit a digital newspaper for seniors. The process is complete when we let go of what we have done and celebrate what we have become.
The paradox is, although my octogenarian’s eyesight is blurry, I see the sub-text of my blog title more clearly, How to Add Years of Joy and Meaning to Life. I write candidly about the regrets and revelations that accompany the aging process, and in the act of doing so, the motor keeps running. I do not go from zero to 60 in seconds, but I get out of bed a few minutes after the alarm rings, despite the degree of discomfort that I have dramatized.
I can tolerate the ache and stiffness that comes with the morning light, even as some days are more harrowing that others. Dear readers, we “ain’t what we used to be” but we still have work to do.