DO THE WALK OF LIFE: Thoughts On Mortality While Limping Around Provence

Walking, jogging. I don’t know how I could survive without either of them.  I inherited my highly-mobile gene, I think, from my Dad, who was jogging in the ‘60’s, decades before it was hip to do so.

“Was that to keep you young?” I once asked him.

He lifted a brow. “No. It was to wake me up.”

Dad, snoozing.

Dad, snoozing.

Raised on a dairy farm in Utah, my Dad had gotten used to awakening to the shock of cold water splashed on him either by his father or by any one of his three brothers. Predawn, those men tugged on boots, denims and gloves and loaded into the back of a huge red cattle truck.  If ice water hadn’t gotten them started, a lung-full or two of the stinging smack of fresh manure usually finished the job.

Years later, when Dad was knee-deep in other kinds of. . .well, when he was deep in his Ph.D. studies, he pushed himself out on a jog every morning at dawn to wake himself up for long days of study.  He jogged daily until a few years ago. I think he jogged in the same pair of baggy grey sweats and worn tennis trainers for four decades because this was not about trendiness or beating a personal best or controlling body fat. It was more about waking up and staying intensely awake, which is the way he lives.

Student group, Château de Versailles. (Dad's taking the picture.)

Foreign study group, Château de Versailles. (Dad’s behind the camera.)

Student group, Rome. (Dad's taking the picture again.)

Foreign study group, Rome. (Dad’s again behind the camera.)

When I was a teenager and my parents led a foreign study group to Austria, my Dad out-cruised every last of the 30+ college students. Up mountain faces to European castles. Down winding paths into ancient grottos. He blazed the way, puffs of smoke trailing him like The Road Runner from my childhood cartoons.  Bee-beeeep!

Dad in the '70's, Madrid, Spain.

Dr. David Dalton, my Dad, in the late ’70’s, Madrid, Spain.

Because of that energy, the students gave him the name “Bionic Beine,” (Beine: German for legs), which proudly-worn title makes today’s gradual physical wearing down that much more frustrating. At almost eighty years old, my father’s body is starting to show its many years of good use, and now it’s come down to the hard truth that he needs a hip replacement, and soon.

But until he gets that real bionic Beine (or better, bionic Hüfte, or hip), his mobility is crumbling right along with the head of his right femur. “Avascular necrosis of the femoral head,” the orthopedic surgeon called it.  “But in my language,” my Dad said, “it’s called agonizing.”

First there was the limping.

In Rousillon, France

Dad in his late ’70’s,  Rousillon, France

Then the cane. . .Then the crutch. . .Then two crutches. . .

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Then more and more sitting to rest from constant discomfort . . .

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And then, last week, the shooting, excruciating agony. . .

Hiking up inner walkways of too-photogenic Rousillon, France

Hiking up inner walkways of the too-photogenic Rousillon, France

We’d been marking my parents’ 56th (fixty-whuooaaw-sixth!) wedding anniversary in southern France.  There’s much beauty to photograph in Provence where we took them, and my Dad’s not one to be told he can’t catalogue the whole thing in pictures.  He’s one to sling his Nikon around his neck and climb up that drawbridge, take photos from the other tipsy precipice, run around this turret, slay the dragon, and climb on top of its back, only to get better light for the prefect shot.

Main square, Rousillon

Main square, Rousillon

Door, Roussilon, France.

Door, Roussilon.

Mausanne-des-Alpilles ladies

Mausanne-des-Alpilles ladies

I followed his lead and let him function as he wished. (Sometimes, though, I hijacked the Nikon as surrogate photographer, especially when stairs were involved.)

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But I learned something: folks raised on farms don’t acknowledge pain. That is, maybe, until they are immobilized by it.

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It wasn’t the ambulance that was most disturbing for my Dad. Neither was it the gurney, the wheelchair, the emergency room staff chattering at him in rapid fire French (one language he doesn’t speak).  Nor was it the crews wheeling him in and out of laboratories for hours on end taking imaging and tests. It wasn’t the morphine drip, nor the long needles to draw fluid from his joints, nor the news that he not only has a deteriorating joint, but that he also has ancillary symptoms that manifest like acute gout.  He didn’t seem to be bothered by the news that for as far as he can see, he’d be in pain that cannot be eliminated, only muffled.

It wasn’t all that. What was disturbing – and I saw this in his eyes – was that this body, the one he’d taken such good care of all these years, was betraying him. He was trapped. Inside himself. And there was nothing he could do about it.  Laid flat out and unable – regardless of intelligence, training, charm, will, wit, or all those accumulated years of hard farm labor and morning jogs – unable and incapable of demanding his body’s cooperation.  Dad was scared.

Bionic? Ironic.

The guy who was hip enough to jog in the early ‘60’s, now hobbling on a disintegrating hip?

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We’ve brought him home to our Swiss village, where, thanks to medication, he can try one daily stroll with my mother at his side. Here, there are red velvet flowers hanging in the window boxes and healthy brown-splotched cows grazing in a neighbor’s plot of green.  The people with Nordic walking poles come tramp-tramp-tramping past our home every day, walking (some of them) the last kilometer or two of three non-stop months of cross-country trekking.  Some, on the other hand, are loaded with giant back packs, heading down to the Santiago de Compastela. That walk ends in Spain.

My Dad sees them with their jaunty gaits, nifty titanium sticks, and hip joints probably polished to a slick ivory sheen.  He remembers when he headed a pack like that, unfazed.  And he can think, as I do a lot lately, about this one recent set back, which will be followed, we trust, by many colorful, photographable passages yet to come, starting with that hip replacement in a few weeks.  Then rehabilitation.  Then learning to walk all over again. All of which is part of simply moving onward, as every one of us must, through this mortality.

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16 thoughts on “DO THE WALK OF LIFE: Thoughts On Mortality While Limping Around Provence

  1. I think you might understand how much I can identify with this post. Wonderful symbolism in the final photo. And hey, what a great hairdo in the very first photo.

    • Oh, yes, Jack. What you’re seeing there is the product of the Basement Laundry Utility Sink Toni Home Permanent, administered by my loving Mom. (I helped, by handing her the little end papers, one by one. Those were the days.)
      I don’t suppose you ever had a perm? 🙂

  2. I wish our parents did not have to grow old. I saw my Dad suffer. I miss him so much. It really puts the perceptive on our purpose , gaining life experience through experiencing life.

  3. Breath taking photos! J’adore! My mother had her hip replaced last year, She was 73. Must be the repercussions of those that lead fit lifestyles. Coincidentally, she too grew up in similar circumstances in Berly, Idaho.

  4. I love those photos of your Dad. He was unconquerable in our travels, from his endless knowledge to the hilarious wiggle he did when he demonstrated how not to play the violin. Vienna, and Europe, would not have been the same without him.

    • Carolyn: that mind of his is still penetrating, swift and curious. It’s just the body that’s slowing him down for the moment. Such good memories of Vienna and canvassing Europe, following his brisk stride and yep, his conducting. Remember all the choir performances along the road? “Flea he hip-hop fidgets. . .?”

  5. It is so painfully difficult to see a parent showing signs of weakness, physically or mentally, oft-times succumbing to the body’s changes as they age, gracefully or otherwise. I wish your father (and mother) well as they deal with these changes. Technology of the day is remarkably successful and I have seen so many elderly that surpass your father’s age finding great relief and a relatively brief recovery period following hip replacement procedures.

    It is the time lapse between initial diagnosis and eventual surgery and rehabilitation that finds the patient in excessive amounts of pain and frustration in the wake of the onset and denial of lost mobility and independence. Aging is not necessarily a smooth and nature progression. We all benefit from an active lifestyle but some of us eventually seem to suffer the wears.

    Sending best wishes for your dad’s full recovery. There is nothing more wonderful than a long walk outdoors…which reminds me…I missed my sojourn today…must do double duty out there tomorrow.

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