Small Health Skirmishes Hint at Bigger Contests Ahead


Retired people can read for days in a row if they set their minds to it. An old friend in his eighties clued me into that. He would turn off his phone and TV and read for a week.

My habit has been to read when I’m almost sick. At the first hint of illness I give up, turn on some music, pick up a book and sit near a back window where I can read and occasionally lift an eye to see outside. 

When I worked as a professor I got sick often. Germs thrive in the open petri-dish-environments of college campuses. In retirement, without all that mingling, I seldom get viruses. But something else is taking shape. 


I am having an old crown replaced. It cracked and a cavity started. That’s two appointments and a big dent in our checkbook.

I had a hearing test a week or so ago to follow-up on an earlier test in 2012. Hearing is now degraded in both ears, and the left ear hears less than the right. I have an appointment with an audiologist and hearing aids are a real prospect.

My foot had a “knot” or fibroma that hurt when I walked. I probably stepped on a wood sliver or piece of glass and that invasion prompted fibrous tissue to build around the injury. The podiatrist cut it out immediately. That was last week, so I’ve been soaking my foot, keeping it elevated and changing the bandage. 

Then there is the periodic PSA (prostate specific antigen) test, which is recommended for old men. My PSA score was high last time so I scheduled another one in three months, which is now. If still high, the urologist will recommend a biopsy to test for cancer. I worry: a biopsy is no fun, and cancer is even less.

My primary physician developed throat cancer. Seven months of various treatments followed, and he is just getting back to work. He’s 15 or so years younger than I am. A high-school classmate in Spokane, Washington is in the final stages of brain cancer, and people are sending emails of sympathy.

Most of us in our 70s or older don’t talk often about disease and the end of life, but we think about it. I can tell.


Medical appointments usually increase with age, and they disrupt life. They steal your schedule and impose serial uncertainty. You can’t golf or visit your children because of a medical conflict, and you have to hold open the next month because next week’s visit to the doctor may require follow-up. And the costs mount.

The silver lining is more time for reading and reflecting. I recently read and reviewed  Living with Alzheimer’s and Other Dementias.

Then I read The Power of Passive Investing, by Richard A. Ferri. Great book, full of charts and numbers.

Next came, The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics, by Elaine Pagels, and it brought me near some ultimate questions in my religious tradition. Pagels writes gracefully, inviting readers to her story. Late in life, hobbled with medical appointments, this book fits nicely into a long day in an easy chair by a window.

Finally, I read two biographies, one of Flannery O’Connor and one of Raymond Carver, both writers of excellent short-stories. O’Connor builds Southern characters who can’t see their exaggerated depravities. She is wickedly funny and sharp as a razor. Carver isolates common events in the lives of blue-collar poor people, like serving a fat man in a restaurant, and darkens them into revelations of weakness or uncertainty. 

Both writers died young of disease. O’Connor died in 1964 at age 39 of lupus, and Carver died in 1988 at age 50 of cancer. 

All this reading has helped. I have drifted to a more complete sense of peace, and I’m now in better shape for more retirement. Perhaps that’s the best we can do with flurries of appointments.


Just got home from the urology appointment and my PSA score is low—no biopsy and probably no cancer. The new crown is in place, and I’m looking for hearing aids that don’t cost too much.

Still, the thoughts about age and destinations linger. Maybe little health problems and medical appointments early in retirement prepare us like athletic practice—we put in our push-ups and run our laps, we have home and away games, and finally we’re ready for the championship that we always lose.