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Opinion: At 50, racing bikes; at 70, teetering in the airport

This week’s writer is Lincoln resident Henry Wilmer, 70, who is a retired schoolteacher and former member of the Lincoln School Board.
In the airport the other day I saw an old man doddering toward terminal D and clearly hoping that a golf cart taxi would come by soon. His steps were so tentative I wondered if he was afraid of tripping on the floor joints. He was bent like a tree shaped by a longtime prevailing wind. Any empathy I might have had lay well hidden behind a silent reproach: He should have kept himself in better shape.
Unfortunately, “the other day” was 20 years ago when I was 50. I was racing bicycles, lifting weights, coaching, taking students on rigorous winter camping trips, and holding down a job in a boarding school where long hours are the norm seven days a week. Before 50 or certainly before 40, I didn’t even notice old people, or, if I did, I just dismissed them as irrelevant or, if had company, as the object of a joke, often derisive.
Now I am in the airport again, this time the old man lurching toward terminal E. Thanks to vertigo induced by chemotherapy, I walk like a drunk, teetering from one handhold to the next, be it furniture, cars in a lot, or surprised strangers on the sidewalk. When I must fly alone, I use hiking poles, which I sometimes fantasize give me the serious, crotchety look of an old mountaineer. The rubber anti-slip tips compromise this image, as do the little gasps and sudden inhalations that accompany any missteps; they often tweak an arthritic knee or calcified vertebra. My granddaughter and I take turns doing impressions of this. She is hilarious! I’m hardly acting. Occasionally, in past moments of secret and totally unjustified hubris, I’d see myself as something of a superhero. Kaelin and I now agree that “Decrepidude” captures my current exceptionalism.
I remember two advertisements, one for aspirin and the other for a medical alarm. The first showed an old lady trying to turn a bottle cap; she recoils from pain in her hands. The other had the tag line, “Help. I’ve fallen and can’t get up.” The first fits me just fine, and the second is not far off.
You are no doubt much kinder than my younger self. Nonetheless, next time you’re in the airport, take a moment to imagine that the old man teetering along toward terminal E was once a vibrant young person just like you. Of course, if you dare, you can also try to imagine yourself in his place. That’s a big ask. While he knows from experience what it’s like to be you, you are unlikely to know what it’s like to be him. Old is harder than it looks. It’s definitely not for sissies!

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