Making change

About twenty years ago, my dad fell off the roof of a house he was working on.

He landed on his back. The house was one story high, and he didn’t land at an awkward or potentially fatal position, so he lived and wasn’t paralyzed. Although I’m sure it hurt like hell, he doused the pain with over-the-counter medication, and went about his business.

Sometime in 2001 or 2002, my dad noticed that his left hand couldn’t hold things as tightly as it used to. He couldn’t squeeze a handball hard enough to make it fight back. His left leg dragged a teeny bit as he walked. The left side of his body tingled, not painfully but as if the effervescence spray of a soda was constantly prickling on his skin. By the end of 2002, he finally decided to get it checked out. He had spinal damage. A disc towards the base of his neck had become misaligned, and had gradually been digging into his nerves for some time. It was relatively severe, and would cause serious damage–perhaps even paralysis–if left untreated.

So, surgery. I drove home to Dallas during the last week of January 2003, to be by my dad’s side as he underwent his first serious surgery in two decades. It was the first surgical procedure done on him that was this delicate, this potentially dangerous. Thankfully, it was a success. In the hospital, my stepmom and I watched over him in shifts, talked with him, made sure he wasn’t pushing the morphine button too often, and watched TV with him as yet another space shuttle exploded.

There were complications. My dad hates having anything tight around his neck, so much so that he cuts the necklines off of nearly all of his t-shirts. Wearing a neck brace for six weeks drove him crazier than any anxiety about the surgery itself. One morning, just before the stitches were to be removed, he woke up to find his pillow and sheets soaked in blood. He still has a slight limp, and I guess he always will. Mostly, though, he’s improved. There’s little tingling these days. His left side hasn’t gotten stronger–it probably won’t–but the surgery has prevented it from getting any worse.

Two months ago, however, he noticed sharp pains, again from the left side. He immediately scheduled a CAT scan, got the results back, and just informed me that–whew!–it won’t require surgery. He’ll need to work to keep his left side fit, and to refrain from over-exerting it. His doctor has essentially told Dad to tone it down. No more lifting firewood. No more heavy lifting, period. Don’t run around so much. Dad’s taking this better than expected. And he’s learned–he didn’t put off the CAT scan.

But the whole thing has been making me wonder: Why did he put off the CAT scan twenty years ago, the one that might have caught all this before the need for major surgery? I’m not casting stones. I haven’t been to the dentist in this century. I’ve had cholesterol testing, get regular flu shots, and get my blood pressure checked every six months or so when I give blood. But I get my cat checked out more regularly than I get myself diagnosed. But I haven’t gotten a full physical in four years. I know several men who’ve gone without for even longer.

I can’t think of a single woman I know who doesn’t go to a doctor regularly. Not one.

Why is this? Just as importantly, why do middle-aged men have such a hard time accepting the limitations that age imposes on their bodies? I have a completely untested, anecdotal, non-scientific theory that I think is absolutely correct.

Men are afraid of doctors. Sure, women are, too, but they handle it more maturely. Doctors remind us, with every jab, with cold metal utensil placed against skin, with every long sigh and gentle reminder to exercise, that we are mortal. Our bodies are fragile. They wear out if we don’t fine-tune them. Hell, they wear out even if we do fine-tune them. The surest fact of life is the fact of death. Each of us knows this rationally, but doctors and their environments force us to face it.

But women are just as afraid of death as men are. So, it’s not fear of mortality that keeps men from having routine checkups…

Intellectual change is relatively easy to accept. No man or woman seriously wants to have the mindset they had as a teenager. Our politics change or at least get refined. Our tastes sharpen and shift. This happens to everyone. (Do I still Vanilla Ice is the greatest rapper ever? Better question: What the hell was I thinking?) But men don’t get used to the idea of physical change as readily as women do.

Sure, our bodies jolt upward and outward at puberty, but it’s not a continual process. It occurs in fits and starts, and then it’s over. Men don’t menstruate once a month, and so don’t experience periodic hormonal changes in quite the same way that women do. Men can’t get pregnant, and don’t have any idea, really, of what the series of internal and external changes that affect a woman during a baby’s gestation. Men don’t get menopause; provided we can get it up, we can still impregnate a woman when we’re 86.

Women experience seismic shifts within themselves that are periodic and regular. They can regulate these shifts, or at least schedule them. Women have an understanding that their bodies will alter—after all, they change, and change back, on a regular basis. They can’t pinpoint exactly when menopause will hit, but they know it will come eventually. Physical change is a regular part of their lives.

Men don’t have big markers like menopause or pregnancy in their physical lives. One day when you’re 30, you fall off a roof, brush off the grass, take some Advil, and climb back on the roof. One day when you’re 50, you notice that you can’t feel the fork in your left hand, and you can’t figure out why. You lift cinder blocks and jog, just like you always do, except you dropped that one block last week and cracked the bathroom tile, and you nearly fell down in the street because you missed the curb. These things accumulate over time, but you can’t accept that they’re adding up to something much larger. Because you don’t experience them regularly, you haven’t really been trained to look for warning signs. So, when you’re finally faced with that large-scale change, it seems more sudden than it really is.

This doesn’t mean that women don’t get angry at, or confused by, their changing bodies. And of course there are exceptions—athletes, diabetics, and Hollywood actors have a keen awareness of regular physical change. But I do think that women are more resigned to the fact that bodies alter, and that they’re better equipped to handle it. So they go to doctors and they monitor themselves. They see change as part of a continuum; men see it as a sudden, sharp blow.

So, ultimately, it’s fear of bodily change—and not fear of death—that keeps a man from accepting that he can’t eat that third helping of barbecue without widening his hips; that spinal surgery means he probably can’t practice gymnastics anymore; that he might need reading glasses if he’s having trouble reading billboards.

So, when Dad left the message on my machine saying that he was fine, I sighed in relief. More importantly, I was proud of him. He’s taking better care of himself now than he did when I was a kid. That’s a change I can root for, and aspire to.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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