Monday, August 17, 2009

Age, Humility, and Constellations

by Julia Buckley

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote, “The age of a woman doesn’t mean a thing. The best tunes are played on the oldest fiddles.” I admire his philosophy and in fact I agree with it. At forty-four I am not exactly youthful, but I am comfortable enough to be considered middle-aged, and there are days that I still feel young as a kitten.

That all changed this week when I went on my round of annual medical exams–my yearly pilgrimage before going back to work in the fall. Best to get it all over with while I still have some days off, right? And they say that people who go regularly to their doctors are more likely to remain healthy.

So why is it that my doctors have me feeling old, on the verge of death, like a fiddle who will never be played again?

The first to assault me was my dentist, a cheerful young woman whose eyes twinkled behind her mask. I told her I had a problem tooth–a tooth so sensitive that if I smiled, and the wind happened to blow in my direction, I would wince in pain. “We’ll look at it,” she said. Then she proceeded to dictate all of my problems to her assistant: weakened enamel, receding gums, crowding. “Is this the tooth you mean?” she asked, plunging what felt like a needle into what seemed a raw nerve.


“Mmmm. Yes. You’ve got a great deal of recession there. Would you like me to fill that area in now?”

I hate dental work, and I really wanted out of my chair; the buzzing of the polisher and the cold air on my teeth had almost done me in. “No, I’ll come back,” I said.

“We’ll do one of the lower teeth, too. You also have a large recession there.”

“Okay,” I said bleakly. I made an appointment for the end of August and left.

A couple of days later I made the trip most women dread: the gynecologist and the yearly pap smear. It’s not just the indignity of the ill fitting paper robe or the coldness of the stirrups that makes this journey so daunting; it’s the reality of what a woman is being tested for. The doctor is doing maintenance in the way of any mechanic, looking you over and assessing your proximity to death.

My doctor did my exam and then launched into her list. “You’re taking multivitamins?”

“Yes. When I remember.”

She frowned at her clipboard. “And the calcium supplements?”

“They made me feel bloated.”

“I’ll prescribe a different kind. I see you have some moles on your arm. Did you want them removed?”


“Do you have others?”

“Well, I’ve always had some on my back . . . .”

A cursory exam had her writing a referral to the dermatologist. “We’ll have them removed. Some of them look iffy. You never know with moles.”

“Ah,” I said, feeling less and less like a fit fiddle.

“Now let’s talk about your cholesterol.”

Ugh. I have always had high cholesterol–apparently the hereditary kind. In the last year I have waged many battles against it. I began to eat fiber everything; I lunched on spinach leaves and snacked on metamucil. I crunched Fiber One squares in the theatre while my family ate buttered popcorn. I took long walks and gave myself hearty, positive talks. I went back to the doctor convinced I had lowered it at least twenty points.

Try two.

My doctor put me on cholesterol medicine, and after two days I had a fever of 104. I took this to be a side effect of the medicine and stopped taking it.

Now she gave me her doctor look. “You’re far higher than I’d like. You’re almost at risk 7. You shouldn’t be above 6.”


“Let’s do some blood work today.”

“Uh–I ate breakfast. I didn’t know we were taking blood.”

“What did you eat?”

Ashamed, I looked down at my paper robe with its wide front opening. What was more humiliating: the exam, or this admission? “Uh–I had some pastry.”

She sighed. “Make an appointment to come in next week; no food after seven the night before. We need to look at those numbers.”

“Yes,” I agreed.

“After we look at those we’ll decide what to do. I’ll write you the referral for the dermatologist before you go.”

Significantly deflated, I walked down the hall to the receptionist. My receding gums, my iffy moles, my cholesterol filled blood, and my guilty pastry-filled stomach came along. While doctors are necessary to health, they are detrimental to the ego.

I realized it was time for another pep talk to myself; I borrowed a quote from another great writer, Anais Nin, who suggested that“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”

And so I (and any of you reading who have had similar experiences) must remind ourselves that we are layered, and that any physical issues which might come and go are merely surface issues over deeply complex constellations.

Like those inner stars, we can age and remain bright.

(Image at


Sheila Connolly said...

What I hate most is the little things that fall apart. No grand life-threatening problems, just annoyances, like floaters in your eyes. It's so wonderful to hear that your eyeballs are drying out. What are you supposed to do about it?

For some reason I keep hearing Julie Andrews in Camelot: "Shan't I be young before I'm old?"

Julia Buckley said...

Ah, yes, the dry eyes. And it's more evident when you wear contacts, and they suddenly turn into glass shards on your eyeballs.

That's a great Julie line; I need to watch Camelot.

Sandra Parshall said...

Growing older is depressing, no doubt about it. I'm currently disgusted with my right knee for falling apart. We can reclaim our youth through our protagonists, though, which may be a reason why so many middle-aged writers write protagonists in their twenties and thirties.

Julia Buckley said...

True, Sandra. And of course I have the luxury of remembering my own twenties and thirties as more glamorous than they really were. :)

Lonnie Cruse said...

Cheer up, girls. When you reach 65 Uncle Sam pays as your body falls apart even faster. That's assuming we still HAVE Medicare. Sigh. I hear ya, Julia, I hate routine check-ups where you leave wondering if you have the plague and the doctor is dialing the local health department to report you.

Julia Buckley said...

Haha. And they're also threatening us with swine flu again. My doctor told me to get a flu shot, saying, "If you get the flu, they're going to wonder what kind it is." Her voice hinted at quarantine.