I went to a bi-monthly social event the other night--steak night with the guys. Usually in attendance are a mix of retirees from my school, students they used to teach who are now middle-aged men, and me.
I drove my friend, who retired about 5-6 years ago. He had injured himself trying to work on a sailboat last week, and so he was, as we say in the South, "down in the back." He had a tough time getting in and out of the car and only decided to come along because he had copped a couple of his wife's muscle relaxers. We agreed, circumstances being what they were, that we would only go for a little while, that we would get his steak wrapped up and he could take it home. I don't eat red meat. Mostly.
When I walked in the front door (I had gone on ahead because my friend was edging gingerly down the sidewalk at a snail's pace), the first thing I noticed, other than the air thick with the smell of french fry oil, was that our host, a man who had retired about 7 years ago, stood at the fryer with an oxygen hose under his nostrils and around his neck and trailing down to the kitchen floor, then across the living room/dining room and into his sun porch some 40 feet away.
He had never worn this apparatus before, but I didn't want to make too big of a deal about it, so I just said, "You'd better not stand too close to that fryer or we'll all blow up." Then I gave him a hug.
"The oxygen in it isn't that strong," he said evenly.
"How long do you have to wear it?" I asked.
"I've got emphysema," he said, lifting the basket of fries so they stopped bubbling so much. "I'll be wearing this forever. It isn't going to get better."
By that time, my friend had made it into the house, where he walked slightly crouched across the slate floor, already answering the litany of questions about his condition.
I suppose this is what partying is, to the oldies. Before the night was over, as we sat watching Olympians with superb body control and fitness while gorging on thick-cut fries and much thicker steaks, we talked about, in addition to the emphysema and the numerous jokes about each of us stepping on the air hose, and in addition to the sorry condition of my friend's back, about the procedures and biopsies of another attendee (all negative) and other health issues. Just that afternoon, I had missed my yearly skin cancer inspection.
When our host, the one with the emphysema, fired up a cigarette at the fryer, I nearly dove under the table. We didn't stay much longer before we hobbled out to the car and headed home.
There is something about the summer that brings out the old in me, that leads me to project what my later years will be like. Of course, I know exactly what causes those thoughts--my yearly jaunt down to a free condo in a Florida retirement community. At least it is free except for the nearly daily confrontation with my own mortality and, as I've mentioned previously, my realization each year that I fit in just a little bit better than I did the year before.
This year, I was especially sensitive to the social nature of the lives of old people. I had two "epiphanies" that will undermine our time down there, should my wife and I decide to spend several months in Florida each year when we are older. The first is that I don't play golf. Of course, I didn't just discover that; I knew that even when I was going around the course hitting the little white ball. No, I connected that fact to how many men spend their average days in Florida on a golf course and wondered what the men do who don't golf. The other epiphany is that my wife doesn't like doing many of the things that groups of women do together. This is because she has always worked as a professional and so those afternoon social gatherings are foreign to her and seem trivial.
Have we, because of our current life patterns, patterned ourselves out of retired living activities? Or will we arrive with a new generation of "oldies" who are more likely to be interested in the kinds of things we are? I just don't know. Given the nature of our current friendships, I wonder if we can be happy during Florida months if we don't import some of our friends from up here down there with us. And how that would work, I don't know either. You can't just say, hey, you need to buy a condo in Venice, Florida so you can hang out with us.
What I do know is that, without a doubt, social gatherings will change, that a birthday party or a meal out will likely involve caring for someone that we used to drink beer with. And becoming the one who is cared for. I just hope you'll put some beer in a cup for me and stick a straw in it.