Photo by Patricia Tompkins

by Chris Seitz

When I was twenty, my mother bought a book written by a famous health guru, though in those days the term hadn’t been coined: America hadn’t yet acquired its lust for ever newer ways to stay young. Mother flipped through the book and put it aside.

I picked it up. As I skimmed through, I found a passage that stated unequivocally that I could live to be one hundred years old. I’d never given the subject a thought before. The thought of seeing what the world would be like in eighty years was intriguing, and I read on. The book proceeded to explain that there was absolutely no reason why everyone couldn’t live to be one hundred if only we followed the guru’s simple suggestions.

So, I began making an exotic drink called Tiger’s Milk. It was supposed to strengthen my system, and included powdered milk, orange juice and several new ingredients including brewer’s yeast and wheat germ. I tried some of the exercises in the book. True, I didn’t ever get a board to lie on upside down to improve my circulation. I didn’t like to think what my parents would say, let alone my friends, if they ever saw me on it.

Eventually I got tired of the odd drink, but the idea of living to be one hundred stuck. The habit of living a healthful life became part of my thinking, though not necessarily my actions. Like most Americans, there were times when I ate well and times when I slipped off the wagon and succumbed to our never-ending cornucopia of junk food. My sleeping habits were always terrible. And I never exercised.

***

Until 1974. That year I discovered gardening, and it became my passion. I grew stronger and more resilient, both physically and emotionally. The garden became the center of my life. No matter what else I had on my agenda, working in the garden was part of every single day, barring a blizzard. I planted roses in sleet during a thunderstorm and startled neighbors by sowing carrot seeds by flashlight. No matter how hard the working day, when I got home I hurried to my garden haven to relax.

Then, I noticed people often remarked on my “bubbly” or “vibrant” personality. They regularly underestimated my age by as much as fifteen years. I stopped getting colds.

I zipped through my forties and fifties. I boldly began to tell people my intentions. Some were disbelieving, others reacted with distaste. At sixty, one hundred began looking a little too close. I moved my lifeline goal to 112 (110 just didn’t seem as if I were serious).

As a child and even during my most intense years of gardening, I always dreamed of traveling. At last, in my sixties, I finally began, visiting five different countries, mostly in Europe, for various periods of time. I had both hips replaced and took treatments for osteoporosis, but in spite of the interruptions, I always found a way to keep gardening.

Then I turned seventy. Forty-two years to go. So far I’ve seen many of my worst fears for the world realized, but so many marvels: un-dreamed-of views of our expanding universe, the first woman Supreme Court justice (and then the second, third, and fourth), our first African-American president, routine broadcasts live from the far flung reaches of our blue planet on devices becoming ever smaller.

But in the middle of the spring garden season that year I noticed a pain in my right shoulder that seemed different from the usual stiff-and-soreness I knew so well. Osteoarthritis, my doctor said. I felt thankful I had a second arm, learned to adapt and headed for Scandinavia. There, I discovered that one of the hip replacements hadn’t been as successful as I’d hoped. I could walk just fine, but barely climb a step. In August I went on an Amtrak trip to San Francisco after scheduling a redo of my bad hip for autumn. Painfully but triumphantly I walked all the way down SF’s zigzag Lombard Street and didn’t talk to anyone about hips.

Back home, as I was closing up the garden for the season, I noticed that same extra pain in my right shoulder was also in my left. The hip redo was a success, but the following spring I got a new diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis. My first reaction was well, let’s get on with it.

***

I’m 75 now. My symptoms so far are mainly pain and fatigue. Pretty standard. Not too long ago I heard someone say he didn’t think of himself as old; he just had something wrong with him. I joked about it with one of my doctors, but he said, “You ARE old!”

Somehow that remark hit home. I’d been trying to stay positive through the months of treatments and sometimes excruciating pain, but limits were closing in. Fatigue was turning to exhaustion. I adjusted my expectations to being able to accomplish just one, sometimes very small, thing in any given day. No medicine seemed to work. Then one evening while walking through my neighborhood I tripped and landed on concrete, and because of my weak bones, fractured a rib and cracked a kneecap. I had to stay in a brace and out of the garden for two months.

Inside, both in the house and in my mind, without my realizing it, my subconscious had begun readjusting plans about how long I’d live. I’d find myself looking at the stacks of books I wanted to read and, without any real thought, put them back on the shelf or give them away. I looked at cookbooks and saw I wouldn’t be able to try all those enticing recipes. I wouldn’t finish all the knitting projects I’d started. I gave away half the cookbooks and yarns.

Toward the end of two months of staring longingly out the windows, watching flowers come and go, I began to cheat a little. Now and then I’d hobble outdoors, being careful of my footing, to see how things had changed in the garden, a place that’s never the same two days in a row. I’d go during my favorite time of day, when the sun’s low. I found a way to bend briefly by extending my wounded leg sideways while one hand reached to clear out small overgrown spaces. My fingers touched the soil, and I felt its familiar caress.

Each day I worked longer, until the sun, which had just been touching the tops of the trees when I came out, had slid from sight, and the trees themselves were silhouettes against the pale turquoise sky. Then I felt the old joy I’d experienced so often in that garden.

At that magic hour, though I never anticipate it, I become aware of the last songs of birds, and sounds of people and dogs. Then all becomes still, and it seems not so much a breeze, as a breath rises, cooler and wetter than before, and it smells of living soil.

When I experience that breath, I realize the time’s passed for doing something or other I’ve set for the day’s goal. But I know, as always, that nothing else in the world could equal that ineffable span of time, however brief. It is so deep. It’s my lifeline, as long as I can hold it.

The crickets begin their chant.

 

About the photographer: Pat Tompkins is an editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her essays and poems have appeared in The Bark, Thema, Modern Haiku, and other publications.