To Be Old and Useful Is a Happy Thing

Even though Texas in 1870 is very far in time and space from my life in 2019 St. Louis, Paulette Jiles’s 2016 novel News of the World, touches on subjects very close to my heart. The story is about an old man who transports ten-year Johanna four hundred miles through lawless Texas territory to her family near San Antonio. Three themes in this slim novel speak directly to me

  • how the old cope with physical and emotional challenges
    Paulette Jiles
  • the relentless human need to communicate
  • and a belief that every personality is made up of all their past: things that happened to them, people in their lives, memories, beliefs.

I read about Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd turning 72 three days before my 72nd birthday. His thoughts on aging ring true.  Physically, there are days when “he hurt in all his joints.” I don’t hurt in all my joints, just my right hip, across my lower back and when I step funny on my left foot. Every time I get up, I lumber a bit, like someone getting off a ship. Kidd felt that “[h]e could for a brief time work as hard as a younger man but it always took much longer to recover.” I know. I know. I still play hard at tennis, but afterwards, I need a nap. I’ve become aware that I sit down and rest after such minimally exertional activities as dishwashing or even yoga, the last ten minutes of which is lying still in “corpse pose.”

When the Captain knew he had to take a dangerous action, he acknowledged his age but said, “I am not a cripple and I am not stupid.” I admire his grit. Ten years ago, when husband Bill and I were both in our sixties, my dad had a serious stroke causing right-sided weakness and impaired speech. He had been the caretaker for my memory-impaired mom. They moved in with us. Caring for them for what turned out to be over three years was the most physically challenging thing I have done before or since. I remember telling Bill I felt like we were in a crucible and I wasn’t sure if we would come out of it intact.

For almost a year we didn’t have hired help. (At first, I had hopes he would significantly recover.) One of us had to sleep in their room, which had been our bedroom, every night to accompany Dad on multiple trips to the bathroom. We had to sleep with one eye open because he just took off despite his weak leg and falling risk. (Later, when he wore Depends, he would still head for the bathroom, like a reflex.) We cooked their accustomed Chinese meals. We kept hot tea available at all times. We checked dad’s blood sugars and gave appropriate doses of insulin.

Bill and I had part-time jobs at the time, our plan to ease into retirement. Fortunately, we were able to stagger our schedules so that one of us could always be home. I drove them to physical therapy. I accompanied Mom to Mass. Once a week, friends came over for mahjongg. The physical exhaustion weighed on both Bill and me. At night, lying on the air mattress next to mom and dad on our king bed, I could feel the achy tingling in my feet.  I started taking Ambien on nights not on duty because I couldn’t afford even one sleepless night. We had experienced similar conditions – lack of sleep and ridiculously long working hours — as medical residents. But we were young then.

Son Alex, Dad, Mom, me at Physical Therapy

Small glitches – a power outage or car trouble or an appliance malfunction (the dryer, the stove and the microwave all broke during this period) – became major crises. Then my beloved son decided to have a destination wedding in the Virgin Islands. Bill’s mom, who lived near her daughters in North Carolina, died, and Bill had to go there. Then, Bill had what we professionals called “acute urinary retention.” In layman’s terms, he couldn’t pee because his enlarged prostate blocked his bladder. For three weeks, he worked and carried out all his parent-care duties wearing a catheter and pee bag. After the wedding, and as both the parents’ health deteriorated, we got caretakers who spent the night. Still later, hospice workers helped with care, especially bathing.  To the very end, we never found anybody who could do Shanghai cuisine, however.

I think Jiles got it right about being old. You can never be sure if the challenge this time will be the end of you. Unlike the young, who see every setback as reversible, the old can never be sure that they will recover. I am happy to report that, as far as I can tell, we were not permanently broken.  This February, we trekked the Milford Track in New Zealand, a four-day, 33.5-mile hike with packs over boulders, streams, fallen trees and one mountain. Bill did carry catheters with him just in case.

Jiles explores the relentless drive of humans to communicate with others through the Captain’s story. Captain Kidd’s love of the written word began early in his life in an odd way. In the War of 1812, the teenage Jefferson Kidd was a runner in Andrew Jackson’s army, “carrying information by hand: messages, orders, maps, reports.” Kidd became a printer and headed out to San Antonio. There he opened his own print shop. “He loved print, felt something right about sending information out into the world.”

After losing his business following the Civil War, Kidd decided to make a living by reading the news to the residents of Texas frontier towns. He excerpted articles from US and world newspapers. He read to the people about electromagnetism, Schliemann’s discovery of Troy, Hottentots, Lola Montez, the British colonial government’s census in India, the Franco-Prussian War.

It was a living but also a calling. When Kidd was younger, he believed that “if people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms and so perhaps he could be an aggregator of information from distant places.” He didn’t believe that any more. Still, he felt he could be useful by escorting the listeners’ minds “into the lands of the imagination, far places, crisp ice mountains, falling chimney pots, tropical volcanoes.”

I am drawn to Captain Kidd’s love of stories and of the written word. His choice of stories to read, curating, really, shaped his listeners’ perceptions and feelings. I, too, have this urge to send my thoughts and feelings into the world. I’m not really sure why, but when I look around, the need to communicate seems nearly universal. In dictatorships where writing is a punishable offense, authors persist.

I, too, had an odd start to my writing life because I didn’t even know English until I was eight. Yet, I soon realized that I could move people just by how I put words together. In fifth grade, my essay of the battle of Marathon won the class’s vote!

“Guilty Pleasures” book signing at Left Bank Books, St. Louis, 2003

Even though my academic studies were in other fields, I continued to write. I put out a Xeroxed newsletter to my fellow medical students with such articles as Nestle’s push to get Latin American mothers to use infant formula instead of breastfeeding and opposition to the closing of one of the St. Louis County health clinics. I joined a writing group, and in 2003, our book Guilty Pleasures was published. I wrote op-eds printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And now I write gonzo book reviews.

It is not just my wanting others to understand my point of view. It is also to pay homage to all the stories that have moved me to laugh, cry, think. Until three weeks ago, when I picked up News of the World, I knew nothing about the Captain or the girl Johanna. Now they are so dear to me. Jiles’s description of spring coming to the Texas countryside made me acutely aware of the changes in the weather, the rivers, the trees and the birds in St. Louis this spring.

Kidd felt that everything he had been through – battles in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, being a Southerner during the Civil War, a happy marriage to a San Antonio woman from a Spanish land-grant family, owning a printing company, being the father of two daughters – had made him the person he was in 1870.

Like Kidd, I am the accumulation of my experiences, my thoughts, my dreams and even my imagination. Captain Kidd believed that “Every thing you ever did stayed with you, every horse you ever saddled, every morning he awoke with Maria Luisa beside him, and every slap of the paten on fresh paper, every time he had thrown open the shutters in the Betancort house, and his captain dying under his hands, always there like a tangle of telegraph wires in the brain where no dispatch was ever lost.”

I time-travel every day, thousands of times. My memory travels to the days when my parents taught me how to be a Chinese person in America. Rather than chiding me for some behavior, Mom would say, “We Chinese do such and such this way.” I remember how much I ached for an unattainable boy. I can feel the excitement ofwhen my girl friends and I celebrated the last day of high school by going to see the movie Tom Jones. I still see myself making hospital rounds with my young son in tow. I remember the faces of the bean counters who took my medical practice from me. I relive the hours Bill and I sat on my living room loveseat making out, unable to keep our hands off of each other, even though we were both in our forties. Nothing and no one is lost. It is a comfort to me.

Bill and I on the Milford Track

I hope, at 72, that I, too, can rise to the challenge if I am called upon to take on a dangerous and important mission. But, in the meantime, just like Captain Kidd, I am “still in one piece, alive and unaccountably happy.”

Tell me: Have you a favorite place where memory takes you?

Author: cathyluh

I am a retired internal medicine physician and a working writer. I live with my husband in St. Louis.

2 thoughts on “To Be Old and Useful Is a Happy Thing”

  1. Cathy, I think that you and Bill WERE called upon to undertake an important mission: your generous, devoted care of your parents. And you succeeded admirably. Your devotion paid homage to everything your parents had done for you. Nothing and no one is lost. What a comfort!

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  2. OMG, what a fantastic review–you keep getting better and better. I love that you relate the books to your own life, musing and development. I must read this book because…well, just because. Just keep up the great work, Dr. Cathy!

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