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Monday 25 September 2017

Medical milestones are life's new rituals in the 'third age'

Green tea
Green tea
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

I've read a lot of books on the art of writing. Some were useful and others were written by people who think creativity is about joining dots. The one piece of advice common to all writers on writing is that cliché must be avoided - I nearly added 'like the plague' but thankfully my cliché detector beeped a timely warning.

I'm not going to bore you with a dissertation on clichés. Instead I want to reflect on the phenomenon of the passage of time, but it is very difficult to do so without drifting into the cliché-infested dykes that litter the landscape of this particular topic.

There are times and moments and rituals and ceremonies that mark the various stages of life. Some are religious, some are cultural and some are natural - birth, puberty and death come to mind.

I remember as a young lad the leap from short trousers to long trousers was a major sign that the boy was becoming a man. This cultural progression was so deeply ingrained that it took me decades to become comfortable with the sight of fully grown men in shorts or short trousers. Indeed, I found the spectacle quite ridiculous.

I'm a bit of a history buff and it was years before I could take Montgomery, one of the most significant figures of the Second World War, seriously.

The first photograph I saw of the great Monty was taken during the desert campaigns of 1942-43. Although arrayed in his trademark beret and cravat, he was also wearing short trousers: not the kind of hero for a young man who valued the status bestowed by a full pair of pants.

While the wearing of long trousers by boys signified a coming of age of sorts, for girls the wearing of a 'mantilla' at mass was a sign that a significant stage of development had been passed. From what I can recall, girls first wore the mantilla - a sort of lace headdress that looked distinctly Spanish - for Confirmation. Many women continued to wear it at religious services throughout their lives.

However, some young ladies were so taken by the headgear and its significance that they wore it everywhere - cycling their bikes, going to the shop, bringing home the cows or meeting their first boyfriend at the back of the creamery.

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So far, so good. I have successfully avoided the 'milestone' cliché but I'm afraid I will soon have to give in.

As we grow older, the milestones of our offspring take precedence until the nest empties and it's back to one's own four bones and the bones of one's current life partner, if there is such a being at the other side of the fireplace.

My nest is far from empty and the first Leaving Cert to be endured under this roof is about to enter its critical phase. What a marker it is. Forty-two years ago, I stubbed my big toe on that particular milestone and I can still feel the pain.

I was a relatively late starter in the family production stakes and, at this point, two phases of my life are colliding. The signs, symbols and omens of the golden years, or the 'third age', are emerging to the soundtrack of Catfish and the Bottlemen, Fallout Boy and Ed Sheeran. Among these signs, our omens is a preoccupation with the state of the body.

During a recent visit to one of my siblings, much time was spent discussing aches, pains, ailments and remedies. From the hair on our heads to the state of our toenails, hardly an organ or a bodily function escaped comment, comparison or analysis.

At the conclusion of our musings, we gave one another a moderately clean bill of health before snacking on rice cakes washed down with cups of organic green tea.

Life markers come and go; some are embraced and some are ignored, but some will stay until it's time to return to the silence. The marker that will stay to the end is the humble but unavoidable tablet dispenser. I find myself the proud owner of not only one but two such receptacles.

The first sits beside the bed and the other is parked beside the marmalade - pharmaceutical versions of Vespers and Matins, or Coversyl and statins if you like.

And there is something religious about taking tablets - there is an order and a ritual to it: they must be taken at specific times and in a specific sequence for their spells to work. Any upset to the sequence can lead to confusion and catastrophe.

I am reminded of the story of the 'golden years' couple leaving the house one morning to catch a train. He can't find his hearing aids and she is fretting about the time. Eventually, they abandon the search for the earpieces and on their way to the train station she asks him if he remembered to take his suppositories, "Oh," he said, "now I think I know where the hearing aids are."

There are markers and milestones, and tablets to be taken, but thankfully much to do before we sleep.

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