Born in 1933, the old man is only a little more bow-legged than when he fell off a ladder some sixty years ago. He is a little slower on his feet and refuses to wear his distance glasses – only noticeable when he puts his hand to the door frame and hesitates. Someone shouts: “put your distance glasses on” and to date, in time, for he is sure to take a tumble and we all know the potential consequences. It’s a worry of course and everyone forgets to check. Why?
To answer the question, we consider that we’ve known him for years and whilst decline has been slow and not such a great decline anyway, there is no real indication that there is anything wrong. The point is that for many years, he was said to have 20/20 vision.
It was sometime after 25th November, Guy Fawkes and bonfire night when he was walking along a narrow alleyway. It was early evening but dark – a great open ink-black sky with distant pin spot stars; a crisp clear evening, the like of which comes around year after year. There are few street lights around the village and none in the alleyway. He has walked the route hundreds of times but that evening someone let off a firework rocket. It wasn’t anywhere near but it lit the alleyway brightly for a few seconds and of course let out a loud bang. The old man stalled, saw stars he said and waited for his sight to adjust to the dark that settled back as the rocket seared through the sky to die out beyond the fields. He stood fast for a minute before continuing on his way home.
A couple of weeks later, he visited London. On arrival and with time to spare and in the faintly remembered surrounding of the train station, he sat at an outside table with a glass of rum. He spotted the Optician’s sign and decided to take an eye test. Sure enough the damage was spotted. The nice young lady, as he fondly called the young Optician, recommended that he attend an eye clinic promptly.
A talk with the eye Doctor revealed that fluid had built up at the back of the eye and with a little enquiry it was suggested that the sudden flash of light had been the likely cause. We don’t know for sure and only then did the old man consider that he had noticed a little problem with his sight in that eye since the night of the rocket firework. Infuriating that he hadn’t mentioned it at the time or at any time since. This illustrates, not decline but rather robustness to his mind and each individual, whether it was the receptionist, the nurse who administered drops to enlarge the pupil or the specialist who operated the image machine or the Doctor who would recommend zapping the vessel, each received him with some degree of query in their minds.
Was he deaf? Was he a little slow in understanding?
He had been asked if he had his medication with him. He had replied but was asked again, a little louder. Facial expressions of the questioner gave it away; the hand put out to the old man’s shoulder, leaning in and smiling reassuringly got the old man responding with facial expressions of his own – the ones we recognise as agitation. “Ive said, twice now,” he said. “I don’t have any pills.” Someone piped up and told the questioner that he wasn’t deaf. It’s true he’s not. There might be a little language issue though. English isn’t his first language and more pertinently, medical talk is out so he does need some interpretation and wouldn’t understand immediately that someone might think he’s deaf. He doesn’t use the word: medication; he say’s pills or medicine as in cough medicine but not med’s or medication and doesn’t visit medical establishments. He rarely takes a headache pill. We smiled.
We smiled but recognised there might be an issue. He was uncomfortable in his surroundings and uncomfortable with the evident allowances that seemed to being made on his behalf. The offer of an arm for example. He is not offended but unaccustomed and stood hesitant since arm taking is perceived as a personal thing to him rather than an acknowledgement of needing support to walk. He smiled, stood awkwardly and appeared to not know where to place his hand on the arm of the accommodating assistant. His companion distracted the old man and chatted as they walked to the waiting room. Unlike a casual onlooker we saw that explanations may be otherwise. Was he unsteady on his feet?
His companion thought about the interaction. He considered that the professionals of London who see numerous people from all walks of life and cultural or ethnic backgrounds, may not have met an octogenarian from deepest darkest countryside over the border and who takes no medication for any ailment, has enjoyed excellent health for most of his life and mostly, does not communicate easily in the language of a new generation and he might be right. His companion spoke with humour when he answered on the old man’s behalf. Another question: “would you like to come through to the so and so room”? The old man had replied an emphatic : “no”. Confusion passed over both parties until the old man’s companion re-jiggled the question as a direction and the old man turned to say: He had been content to stay where he was and revised the position to say: “Why don’t they say so then?” The old man had always been a little precise in the questions and answers game and he’d never had very much to say anyway.
The outstanding element was considered by the old man’s companion. The old man had fallen from a ladder and had attended the old Cottage hospital in the nearby town. The local Doctor, a no non-sense type, had taken a quick look, prodded his knee and sent him to a treatment room. He hadn’t asked him if he would like to go to the treatment room. Not only that, the treatment room was up a flight of stairs. No-one seemed to bother about any of it in those days and his knee was seen to. The old man cursed the Doctor quietly, but made the stairs. It was his first and last encounter with a Doctor and although he doesn’t bear grudges he probably retains an expectation that treatment involves direction, with little inquiry and a patch-up. The other outstanding feature is that the old man had walked to work. Three miles in and three miles home. His first job on reaching work in the morning was to make the foreman a mug of tea. The nine hour day involved him in labouring in building a sea wall.
The old man had laboured on building sites and the like for many years. His Grandfather had worked as a road-man into his mid seventies. The household had fresh meat and vegetables, little heating and no insulation and an outside water source, layers of blankets and feather mattresses. They dried coats before an open fire or danced around in underwear in an aura of steam if the rain had soaked in. Walking similar distances, was no big deal and when asked about it, he doesn’t consider it unusual; it was what most young men did in those days.
The issue of walking came to prominence again when his friend, by way of explanation, mentioned it to a new visitor who had heard about the eye complaint. When she’d done with raising her voice sufficient to make the old man hear the question again, she shook her head and sighed. He’d tried to answer but she’d posed it another way and leaned in before he could answer. The old man hollered that he wasn’t deaf and “no” he did not take medication and although he didn’t say it, he hadn’t lost his marbles.
He’d been active most of his life and his friend attributed his present state of health to his enduring habit of walking. The old man maintains that good health has more to do with staying away from Doctors though his knee gives him gyp in damp weather. There could of course be another undiscovered cause for concern and questions of self neglect in not seeking medical advice and he really should get new glasses with distinctive frames so that everyone can spot which ones he’s wearing. The visitor looked at the old man indulgently and smiled at the six mile walk story. “I don’t think I believe that,” she said.