Limitations, Consolations

Pickup basketball is out of the question, but there’s more time for nostalgia.

By Nick Lyons | Picasso said that his paintings were a “sum of destructions.” So is growing old. One part breaks down, then another. Sooner or later, hopefully the latter, the whole machine crashes. None of it resembles art.

In my mid-fifties I played my last game of basketball. It had been the great game of my youth. I had played on a ranked college team and in France and, at five feet, nine inches tall, could touch the rim and run until tomorrow. There is a faded photograph of me, from nearly a half-century ago, in La Rochelle, with fingers above the hoop; a local observer had even said, “Comme ça un danseur.”

I was in a pickup game that last day, on a cement court at Riverside Drive and 76th Street, where I had played now and again as my three sons grew up and my belly grew out. My lungs were already shot, and I panted to keep up, but I did, and I had just made a couple of my double-pumps faintly reminiscent of the old days, leading one angular teenager to whisper, “Who is that old man?” Then I tripped, landed smack on my elbow—as I’d done a hundred times before—but this time a black lump the size of a plum erupted, and I never played the game again.

Ten years later I was having lunch with a new client and this odd thing happened: I couldn’t lift the fork from the Caesar salad to my mouth. I like to eat and this is not the kind of problem I had ever faced. Thinking I might be having a heart attack, I left abruptly, muttering who knew what—I never saw the man again—and stumbled into my doctor’s office 20 minutes later. I had taken my health so much for granted that I had not been checked in five years and the man hardly knew me. “It’s the flu,” he assured me with that authority I rarely have the guts to question. “There’s an aggressive strain around.” And he told me to go home and sleep.

I did nothing else for two days—unable to eat or sip chicken soup, shivering in June—and then gradually I lapsed unconscious for the first time in my life and was hauled by ambulance to an emergency room. Urine the color of Coca Cola told most of my story. It was my gall bladder, and an hour later, after various scans, a doctor advised me that surely I had stones and that the thing was hot and about to burst. I overheard him tell an intern that he couldn’t take it out because it was “fried to the old guy’s liver.” This news did not please me. Nor did the 10-day stay, tubes protruding from me here and there, cooling the angry errant organ until they could pluck it out.

Then, a few years later, after prostate problems and failing eyesight, a decade after I’d given up basketball, I discovered that I couldn’t walk to the corner. It was my hips this time, fully destructed, so I got one new titanium replacement after the other and was duly advised that they’d render me as good as new, in the pink, except that they’d disengage if I ran, waded in rough rivers after trout, jumped rope (which I’d always done to lose weight), turned too suddenly in bed, fell the wrong way.  Swim a lot, I was told. At my weight, I’m allergic to bathing suits, but I’ve dog-paddled a little now and then, mostly at night when no one’s watching.

Consolations? Now that I am less active, waves of warm, nostalgic memories wash over me as I sit on my back porch: days of hoop glory, fearless moments in great western rivers, racing my kids when they were teenagers, before they began to run marathons. I have grandchildren—though I can hardly keep up with them. And I have an acute sense of my limitations and a card of numbers to call for medical or road-service emergencies. I read a lot more. And since my memory is shot, I can keep reading my favorite books for the first time. My wife and I agree that we can, working together, remember any name we once knew, given a week.

Sum of destruction?

Picasso didn’t know the quarter of it.

Nick Lyons W’53 has been a professor of English and book publisher. His last book was Full Creel.

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