Gettin’ Old Ain’t Fer Sissies

My father used to love quoting this line. First attributed to actress Bette Davis, the phrase has been adapted and immortalized into scripts, songs, ballads, and onto countless t-shirts and ball caps. I used to laugh when my dad said this, as he complained about his various ailments. This good-natured take on aging helped him through the more difficult moments of his later years, and I admired his fortitude.

“If you think your forties are tough, try your sixties” he told me, laughingly.Then, when he was seventy he said “Wait; just wait and see”.

“No thanks”, I offered. “I’m strong and healthy and I plan to stay that way. I eat good food, and I exercise all the time. I don’t smoke, drink, or do drugs.”

Dad just laughed again. “Wait and see”, he repeated.

I shrugged this off. I made good, careful choices about my life. I would live to be a hundred, jogging, bicycling, swimming, and cross-country skiing. I planned to sky dive, scuba dive, go on safaris, climb pyramids, explore jungles, and learn wilderness survival. Nothing would ever slow me down!

Dad told me a story. One day he went to see his doctor and complained about his failing eyesight, the pain in his back and neck, a reduced ability to think clearly, mild memory loss, difficulty sleeping, and digestive trouble. His doctor examined him and ran a full range of diagnostic tests. Then he chuckled.

“Welcome to your forties!” the doctor concluded. “You’re perfectly healthy, Mr. Smith.”

“What?” Dad said, incredulous. “I thought all this would come much later, if at all!”

“Welcome to middle age. I happens to all of us”

My father went home that day feeling very humbled. He had always been a pillar of strength, indomitable. He had never lost a fight. He was indestructible … except that he wasn’t. It was a very sobering realization. He quit smoking in his fifties. He started an exercise plan and began hiking and bicycling. He felt better. He named his bicycle “Buddy” and they went on lots of adventures together, climbing up and down trails in the California Coastal Range near Pacifica.

Then one day he took a big tumble on his bike. He severely sprained both his ankles and was laid up for many weeks. He tried to get back on his bike afterward, but it hurt too much to pedal. Dad was heartbroken. Buddy hung indifferently on the garage wall for months, quietly taunting him, until finally Dad sold him. It was just too hard for him to look at his old friend when they couldn’t go on adventures together anymore.

Dad was sad for a long time after that, but eventually, he found other interests and became his chipper old self again. He often went fishing in his little boat and enjoyed being outdoors.

“Gettin’ old ain’t fer sissies, Rosanne” he told me. Age has a way of sneaking up on you. Heed what I’m telling you and take good care of yourself.”

“I will, Dad. I work hard to stay healthy.”

“All the same, be careful” he warned.

He said “Gettin’ old ain’t fer sissies” many more times in his life, often with a good-natured, wry smile. He had a great attitude about it all.  But what child ever listens to their parents? I’d been a park ranger most of my life. I was tough. One year after I retired from full time work, I decided to go back to being a National Park Ranger. I took a winter job in Death Valley National Park. I wanted to renew my First Responder certificate, so I could help rescue injured park visitors. I used to teach these classes to other park rangers, so I figured it would be a snap to renew my certification.

The following spring I enrolled in a Wilderness First Responder Class at Lake Tahoe. I was 54 at the time. All the other participants were in their 20s. For some reason they seemed to remember things more quickly than me. They were more agile, too. I was shocked. I had always been so tough and strong. Why, I had even won an Iron Woman contest in Finland at age 39, and I had a very impressive-looking iron trophy to show for it! I waded right in with the youngsters, determined to outshine everyone.

“Rose, are you going to be okay doing this class?” the instructor asked me.

“I’m good!” I said.

“How does it feel to be surrounded by people half your age?” she asked me. (She was my age, so I understood why she was asking me these pointed questions.)

“Great!” I lied. Truthfully, I was feeling a bit intimidated by the youthful zeal all around me.

Day 1 of the training was fine: mostly classroom instruction. I can do this, I thought, although I had some trouble remembering the answers quickly when we were quizzed. The other students answered rapidly. I was puzzled as to why I needed more time than them to think.

“Get a good night’s sleep” our instructor told us. “We will be outside tomorrow doing a lot of patient lifting and packaging.”

No problem, I thought. I felt confident I could not only do this, but maybe even impart some wisdom.

The next day there was a lot of carting people around on backboards and in basket litters. We were lifting up and down, in and out of tight spaces, over and under, around and through many different obstacles, just as it would be in real life if we were rescuing people in the wilderness. I was at the head of each exercise, carrying people and giving directions. I felt like I was doing alright, although I was getting pretty tired by late afternoon.

That evening, back in the classroom, the instructor was talking about how to wrap patients up in blankets to protect them in cold weather. I was feeling very exhausted at this point. I also hurt a great deal. All of a sudden, I found it hard to move because the pain was so severe. Everyone else was fine, but now I was the injured one.

“I have to go”, I said, as everyone looked at me.

“Are you alright?” they asked.

“I’ll be okay; I just need to lie down and rest”, I reassured them.

I laid awake all night, hoping the pain would subside. But it was worse in the morning. I was able to drive home, and I went to see my doctors, but they were unable to see a cause. The problem with lifting injuries is that damage to the body is not readily apparent. But I’ve hurt every day since then, and I always hear my dad’s voice in my head, telling me to be careful. I wish I had listened.

Still, I’m grateful to be up and moving. I think of how strong my dad was in the face of pain and this helps me to carry myself through each day. I wish I could go back in time and reverse the day I got hurt. We should all pay more attention to good advice when it is given.

I went back to work as a park ranger the following year, determined not to let my back pain keep me from my dream. But it wasn’t easy. I kept thinking of my dad and how he had persevered.

Now I tell my own children to be careful. “Grandpa always said that gettin’ old ain’t fer sissies”, I say. “Watch what you are doing. Don’t do heavy lifting. Think about your actions and possible consequences.”  

“We know, Mom, we know”, they reassure me.

Uh huh, I think. I hope they listen to me. Because now I truly understand what “Gettin’ old ain’t fer sissies” means.  Maybe my grandkids will listen someday.

Rosanne S. McHenry is a former U.S. National Park Service Ranger, and a former California State Park Ranger. Her award-winning book: “Trip Tales: From Family Camping to Life as a Ranger” is a funny and engaging collection of short stories about how family camping adventures as a child inspired her to become a park ranger.

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