Surprise Endings In Life!
As I write this, the GOP is holding our government hostage over the debt ceiling. It appears that an extreme right faction, what I like to call the Wrong-Wing of the Republican Party, has the Speaker of the House by the balls and is squeezing with all they have to destroy the democratic-socialist society that FDR got started almost 100 years ago. This is a struggle between the authoritarians and a free, democratic socialist society we've been fighting about since our inception nearly 250 years ago.
Our story is about Gale and me dealing with aging; it is just one of the millions of stories in our country and worldwide. In the United States, we are suffocating under this archaic bootstrap fiction that rose up initially as "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps." This is a misuse of an unrelated article by a man named Nimrod Murphree, who claimed that he had "discovered perpetual motion." The Mobile (Alabama) Advertiser published a snarky response to his claim. "Probably Mr. Murphree has succeeded in handing himself over the Cumberland River, or a barnyard fence, by the straps of his boots." This silliness has become the clarion call of the conservatives in America as they rail against any form of social welfare for those in need.
The title of this piece, Exit Left, has a subtext. First, I've been politically left of center for most of the 81 years I've been around, and exiting left appeals to me when the time comes. Second, Gale and I have always been huge fans of live stage productions. As Shakespeare said in his play, As You Like It;
"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."
It goes on a bit more, and you can read the rest here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56966/speech-all-the-worlds-a-stage
We preferred stage plays rather than musicals, but we were also enthralled season ticket holders to the Seattle Opera for many years and to the University of Washingtons World Series, where you could choose between world music, dance, and classical music, as I recall. We were regulars in the music and dance series. Today, you pick the performances you want to see or subscribe for it all. It is some of the best theater you'll find anywhere. https://meanycenter.org/tickets/season
I posted an earlier piece, perhaps on Facebook (FB from here on), about life's pivot points, events like your first day in school, getting married, etc., and how you must adapt to each of those changes or stages in life. Here, I wish to focus on what may be the last pivot, the "Last scene of all," as Shakespeare saw it. It's a stage or pivot point we'll all make and that we must deal with both physically and psychologically if we live long enough. That pivot point comes when you or your partner reach the point that you can no longer function as independently as you have up to the time of the change, whether it's a permanent change or temporary. The change can be relatively minor to something major, but it will require an overhaul of your life. Gale and I have been and still are dealing with just such a situation.
First, let me set the stage since I seem to be in a theatrical mood today. Almost everyone near the end of their run in life is defined by both the road they have traveled and the sum of their memories that are often memorialized by many of the physical things that surround them. These include but are not limited to a house, cars, children, art objects, clothing, thousands of photos and videos, and a raft of possessions collected on their journey that define who they are and what they've achieved. Our interests and tastes in most areas of life become our brand, as surely as a commercial product like cereal or soap. Each adventure adds to our changes something about us.
For example, for the last 31 years, Gale and I have lived in our dream house in Magnolia, an upscale neighborhood in Seattle, Washington. To be sure, our move to Magnolia was due more to good fortune than anything we can say we accomplished. Nevertheless, when we met people out and about, and they invariably asked where we lived, and we responded Magnolia, the response was predictable, "Oh, that's a great neighborhood." That was often followed by the question, "Where in Magnolia?" Magnolia is built on two fairly large hills, the east and west. The west hill is preferred for its views of Puget Sound and the mountains, and the homes there are generally more expensive, with some bordering on mansions. When we said we lived on the west hill, we could often sense the envy of the people we were talking to and we would rightly feel a sense of pride. Again, I must point out that we did nothing special to achieve this status other than being fortunate and in the right place at the right time. What followed was thirty years of hard work and various money management slights of hand to maintain our status.
This is just one example, albeit a significant one in our lives, making my point about personal brands. We traveled out of the country several times in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Like most people, we brought back souvenirs and photos to remember where we had gone. No matter your path in life, your career, hobbies, vacations, preference in music, clothing, movies, etc., at age 60, 70, or 80, you are surrounded by all the things that define who you are, what you are, what you like and dislike; your tastes in many areas, all these items are you and are your brand.
Another quick story. As a manager at Boeing in the late 1980s, with the Company going through what was referred to as a cultural revolution, one of the many elements of that upheaval involved office automation. In other words, computers had burst on the scene.
Few of us were conversant with computers, and many people distrusted this new wave of technology. They sent managers to classes on the process of converting from manual to computer processes to carry out our assigned tasks. The instructor in my class gave the example of a group of commercial artists who produced beautiful posters used for advertising, safety posters, and various ways to communicate with the masses. Many of these graphic artists were people who had spent thirty years in the Company producing world-class art using pens, pencils, brushes, and tape. Most of them carried around a toolbox that looked like a small fishing tackle box. It held all the pens and tools of their trade.
Over their thirty years of service, the professional artwork they produced with these manual art supplies defined who they were. This art resulted from their talent, training, inspiration, years of experience, and dedication to their trade, all done by hand. Along comes an office automation implementor who tells them that pens, ink, and all those tools are obsolete - it's time to change.
Toss all the old stuff in the trash and start using a computer where all you had to do was tell the machine what object you wanted on the artwork you were building and where it was to be placed, and, poof, it appeared on the screen. Should anyone be surprised that these proud and talented people resisted this change and were deeply offended and unhappy about the message sent through office automation that they had just wasted thirty years? We were stripping these people of everything they took pride in, everything that defined them as individuals with talent and expertise.
This story is analogous to reaching that point near the end of your life, as we are, where you have to let go of your house, maybe your car, your independence, and many of your personal belongings because you'll be living in a smaller space.
Something as simple as meeting someone who asks where you live now becomes difficult to answer, almost an embarrassment. "Oh, I'm living in a senior community where they can look after me if my health fails." How can you feel the same sense of pride that you had when you announced what neighborhood your house was in? You no longer have a house, a neighborhood, or neighbors. Your independence and self-respect, based on all that you accomplished and accumulated in life, are gone oftentimes in an instant; an instant being a couple of months compared to a lifetime.
Some of this bleaching out of your life begins at retirement and even before that. Before retirement, you used to talk with friends over a beer about your job. You bored your life partner to tears talking about your job, your friends at work, the jerks, and the good and bad bosses. For a time, after retirement, you still talk about your career as if it was still a part of you, but over time, you talk less and less about it. The separation, both in time and psychologically, between working and retirement becomes greater. You no longer belong to that tribe and feel a sense of loneliness. You adapt or pivot to a life without a career.
I mentioned that some of these changes could start earlier than retirement. Choosing to have children can also define who you are and what you've accomplished. You spend roughly two decades or more raising children, supporting them in their endeavors, and hopefully taking pride in their accomplishments. Then, wham! One day they are gone. They're off to college or the military or getting married and starting a new life for themselves. You have to let go, and that can be difficult.
In our case, after retirement, the big change came with an injury to Gale. We were headed out for dinner on my 80th birthday in September of 2022. Our house, a tall skinny affair with thirty-two steps from the front door to the bedroom on the third floor, was designed for mountain goats. But, for some thirty years, we managed those steps. There were nights when we had been out all night endangering a grape variety or two that those thirty-two stairs felt like The Great Pyramid of Cholula, also known as Tlachihualtepetl (Nahuatl for "made-by-hand mountain"). I might also mention that for our fifty-one years together, as I write this, we have never lived in anything but a house, starting with the home we bought from Gale's parents in San Diego in 1972.
Now, the rest of the story. We were headed out to dinner on my birthday. As is her brand, Gale was dressed to the nines with plenty of bling. She had new shoes on with shiny new soles as we began the trek down the carpeted stairs. At about the fourth step down, her new shoes slipped on the carpet and down she went on her butt, bouncing down two or three stairs before I could turn around and arrest her rapid descent. I asked if anything hurt, and she said only her ankle. She stood and tested her ankle and announced she was fine to continue. Off we went and we had a wonderful dinner out with great food and wine, which was part of our brand as a couple, as many Seattleites can attest.
A couple of days later, I think it was a Saturday night, we were out again, prowling our usual food and beverage stops and visiting with friends. When we returned home, Gale tripped on the stairs at the living room level, heading up to the bedroom, falling forward but apparently no worse for wear. It was probably on Monday that she complained of a sore back. We did the routine ice pack and heat pack, and she took some acetaminophen. In another day or two, the pain increased. We contacted our doctor and I think she prescribed a couple of things. Nothing was working.
Another couple of days with no relief from severe pain, and one night around seven, the pain was over the top. She couldn't go down the stairs to get to a medical facility, so I called 911. Another dog and pony show ensued in terms of transport to the hospital, but eventually, we got her to an ER to be seen. An x-ray revealed a fractured lumbar vertebrae. They fitted Gale with a back brace and prescribed Oxycodone for pain and instructions to follow up with our primary care physician.
To keep this part as short as possible, the next several weeks involved visits to doctors and consults on the phone, and eventually, a decision was made to do "minor" surgery to free a pinched nerve in the area of the fracture. The surgery took place in mid-December, almost three months after the injury. After a stint in rehab, Gale came home and it became clear to us that our house, with all those stairs, simply could not work. While seemingly free of the pinched nerve, her back was still extremely painful. More consults and the decision was made to do a major surgical procedure to remove the damaged vertebrae, add some bone, and fuse the whole mess together. That would be followed by more months of rehab and recovery. As I write this, we are just one week after that surgery and the pain from that is over the top. It's a case of the cure being almost worse than the ailment, but we're assured it will get better.
This was our "Surprise!" i.e., Lucy snatching the football from Charlie Brown. Our life has been defined by a social life that revolves around food, wine, theater, and music. Like most folks, we were home most of the week binging on Netflix movies and TV shows. A typical Friday or Saturday meant going out for dinner and carousing a bit. A typical night out started around seven and ended when the bars closed around 2 am. For a couple of senior citizens, we seemed to amaze some younger folk with our appetite for a good time and our staying power late into the night. Entering our eightieth decade, we were completely independent and full of zest, as they say.
Suddenly, we faced the fact that one of us needed back surgery, a temporary walker for support, and a complete cessation of our social life. Even worse, we now had to consider giving up our house of many steps and moving into an apartment or senior facility that would permit us to deal with the injured back. We needed to sell the house we had lived in for thirty-one years and the house of our dreams. Our world was crashing down around us.
An interesting aside, we had talked about just this sort of thing any number of times in the past. I was fond of saying that if you live long enough, something will bite you on the ass. It might be a stroke, broken hip, or heart attack, but damn few elderly people escape this life without dealing with life-altering health issues. It's easy to discuss this philosophically when you're feeling good and with a glass of wine in your hand; it's quite another thing to face it in reality.
We had a 2,500 square foot, three-story home full of fifty-one years of furniture, clothing, objects de art, jewelry, books, and trinkets that established "our brand." We, or perhaps I should say I decided we should move to a senior facility where, if needed, we could get assistance for either of us should we need that. I consulted with Gale on all this, but between the effects of Oxycodone, Gabapentin, and a couple of other drugs along the way, I'm not sure how present she was in some of the discussions, and decisions had to be made.
There were, from my point of view, no viable alternatives. To make matters worse, once we moved to a senior living facility, Gale could not participate in the disposition of the many things that had to come out of our house for it to go on the market because of her condition.
I took photos that I cast to our TV so she could see what we were dealing with, but it wasn't like being there. Furniture, clothes, shoes, artwork, ceremonial wine bottles, dishes, cooking utensils, books, jewelry, and boxes in the garage and storeroom, the contents of which, in some cases, we hadn't seen in over forty years and couldn't remember anything about them. But it was "our stuff."
It defined us and the journey we had been on together. I should point out that based on a decision about five years earlier that we might sell the house, I had packed some twenty or thirty boxes full of glassware, art objects, and books; the books are so heavy. In addition to that, there were/are about forty boxes of books in the garage that came up with us from San Diego that haven't seen the light of day. We aren't hoarders, per se; you won't find any half-eaten pizzas in boxes around the house, but we are collectors of things we consider art and interesting.
We had a couple of "downsizers" over to see what we had, and most of them wanted nothing to do with having to go through between sixty and a hundred boxes just to see what was in them. They pointed out that they would have to hire people at about $75/hour, at least two, to sort through all this stuff, and it might take a couple of days. Two people, eight hours a day for two days equals 32 hours at $75/hr, or about $2,400. They didn't believe it was worth the effort.
Part of me understands that, but part of me also wonders why it doesn't occur to them that it might have some value if we took the time to pack things carefully in boxes. How many people pack what they bought at a thrift store and their trash in boxes to be moved and stored? If you're reading this and expect to have a similar experience down the road, you need to understand something; what is valuable to you is likely simply a curiosity to others.
Two forces are at work here. Let's say you bought a poster for $20 - a poster you just loved. It has an emotional connection that has nothing to do with value. Secondly, it's just a poster to everyone else; it has no history or importance. And, while it may be worth it to them if they can get it for $2 to hang on a wall, that's as far as they'll go. If it isn't signed by a famous artist, you won't get squat for it. Among the thousands of items in our home, we might have had a dozen or so things that truly had collectible value, and none were worth thousands of dollars. Some of our semi-valuable things were placed with a woman that does online auctions, and we're keeping the rest to see if we can peddle them online. Some have been donated and some have yet to go in a garage sale. That's the truth of it for most people when the time comes to downsize.
We finally decided on a realtor who was willing to act as sort of a general contractor. They connected with people who did downsizing, liquidating, cleaning, and the whole nine yards. Under normal circumstances, if there is such a thing, I might have been more involved in all this, but I was also a caregiver for Gale. Fortunately, she was and can care for herself mostly. She can amble around the apartment, go to the bathroom, brush her teeth, etc. She's not able to bend over and pick things up due to the back injury, and her physical activity is limited by the attacks of pain, but I can go to the market for things we need and stuff like that. Her after-surgery condition is worse than before, but we're assured it will improve. Regardless, I wasn't available to be the full-time facilitator of the downsizing and preparation of our home for the market; we had to depend on others for that, which cost money and limited our personal management of affairs.
So, There's that issue, the shitstorm of divesting a great deal of what is part of you. Then there's the other half of the story; you gotta find somewhere to live. We happen to live in Seattle. We didn't just happen to end up here, we chose to live here almost 45 years ago and we can't imagine anything that would cause us to leave. However, the cost of living in Seattle is 167.8 percent over the average for America. The cost of living indices is based on a US average of 100. An amount below 100 means it is cheaper than the US average. A cost of living index above 100 means it is more expensive. There are various studies with different results, but they generally agree. In 2019, Geekwire pegged the cost of living in Seattle as the fifth most expensive city in the U.S.
Example. If a one-bedroom apartment in Podunk, Iowa, costs $2,000/month, in Seattle, it will be around $3,360. A loaf of bread at $1.99 is $3.34, and so on. When you have someone, like Gale, with a bad back and using a walker and the uncertainty of if or when she might fall or collapse in pain, you want a backup quarterback, i.e., some assistance if necessary. If you're alone, and I hope you won't be, but someday we all will be, it's even worse.
If your last name is Gates, Bezos, or Musk, chances are you stay in your mansion and hire your own battery of nurses and therapists; whatever is needed to ease you and your loved one out of this life over the next five, ten, or however many years you may have left. I know the number of billionaires has multiplied. In 1987, Forbes counted about 180 billionaires in the U.S. There are now an estimated 800 billionaires. We are not one of them and I suspect you may not be either. So, what's the alternative for most of us?
Most of us have two basic options. If we have an extended family, and someone in the family is infected with the Mother Teresa syndrome, they might take you in and look after you as best they can. Again, I'm going out on a limb and saying that's impractical in most families, and the Teresa syndrome is extremely rare. The other option is to hire in-home care, full-time or part-time. That gets expensive as hell, especially the full-time part.
The average cost in Seattle is $20 to $28 per hour. If part-time, say 6 hours a day, seven days a week, at an average of $25/hour is $1,050 a week or about $4,540/ month. Remember that mom or dad is still in their home with all the associated costs, utilities, insurance, groceries, perhaps a mortgage, property taxes, etc. Depending on the circumstances, you may well be in the $7,000 - $8,000/month range.
The other alternative is a senior living community. In Seattle, those range from $4,000 to $5,500 monthly for one independent person in a nice place. That gets you board and room, meals, cleaning service, and some laundry. If there are two people, tack on somewhere between $500 -$1,000 a month for the second person and, in most cases, a deposit for a pet if they have one. If you still have a car, tag on another $100 or so.
Let's peg the cost at $6,000/month; you can pay a lot more if you have the money. Oh, and most places hit you with a one-time community fee ranging from a couple of grand to as high as $6,000. Yet another wrinkle if you have the bucks is that you "buy in" with a large upfront deposit ranging from a couple hundred thousand dollars to as high as a million dollars. This presumably gets you a break on the rent, and most of these are high-end places with many amenities. If you leave after a time, some of that is returned to you on a prorated basis.
Because Gale was leaving the hospital in January after an emergency return for pain and could not return to our house, I had to pick a senior community. I opted for one in the Ballard neighborhood in Seattle. I'll spare you all the details, but that simply didn't work out. After about five weeks, we relocated to another facility in Lower Queen Anne, a neighborhood now known as "Uptown" because it's on the north side of the main downtown area, owned and run by a Canadian outfit called Cogir. I believe this gave us back a little of our pride; we now live in an area called Nob Hill in Uptown, Seattle 😁.
The message in all this is to be as prepared as you can, both financially and psychologically, for your senior years. Shit really does happen, and it has a way of happening at the most inopportune time.
Perhaps because I'm Irish or just full of shit, but I thought I'd wind this up with a couple of poems, two I wrote and one I found that I thought was cute.
The Little Boy And The Old Man
By Shel Silverstein
Said the little boy, sometimes I drop my spoon.
Said the little old man, I do that too.
The little boy whispered, I wet my pants.
I do too, laughed the old man.
Said the little boy, I often cry.
The old man nodded. So do I.
But worst of all, said the boy,
it seems grown-ups don't pay attention to me.
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
I know what you mean, said the little old man.
By Mike Davis
The path slopes gently downward
Tiny steps are made spontaneously
Stumbling and uneven
From side to side, I wander
Consuming what I see
Many colors, shapes, and sounds
What does it mean to me?
Dangers lurk at every turn
Sentinels guide my path
Every flower, bright and new
Spring showers, the worlds bath
Beauty, beauty everywhere
Expanding boundaries of my mind
The world is not a stranger now
My search becomes a different kind
The path turns sharply upward
A stumble, I must be wary
So far to go, so much to do
I have no time to tarry
No cavalier steps taken here
My face a furrowed brow
There is but one direction
Not where, not who, but how
The path, has narrowed even more
The grade is steeper still
My legs grow weak and tired
Questions nag my will
I stop to look at where I've been
To see the path I've laid
It looks a little different now
Than when I passed that way
A few more steps, a short respite
I long to take a rest
The path suggests the end is near
Nearby, just at the crest
I take my rest, knowing well
I won't get up again
Dissolving into the worlds beauty
My companion to the end
By Mike Davis
Death moves silently
But not always swiftly
We know death is nearby
We feel it, we smell it, we see it
Death teases with its embrace
Not yet, not yet, not yet
Death plays upon the stage
The audience holds its breath
Sometimes death comes quickly
Like the strike of a cobra
Or, it settles over us slowly
Like the fog upon the moor
Not now, not now, not now
Life is not fair, death should be.