This Is What 70 Looks Like: “Who Ya Gonna Call?”

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When you reach 70, you’re still 10 years out from the odds of death catching up to you. It’s a big improvement in one short generation when the average Canadian’s lifespan was 70. But it’s time, nonetheless, to figure out who it is that you’re going to call when you fall down and break your hip (and maybe starve to death because you can’t get up off the floor to make the call).

Or, even better, know who’s checking in on you.

I learned this lesson in an odd, quirky way back in 2005. My husband and I had just come off hiking eight days on the Pacific Crest trail in Washington State – crisscrossing the Continental Divide, out of food, rank, high on the mere fact of our accomplishment and a week without seeing another human being.

Our trip’s end had brought us to a trailhead that the small town used to drive hikers out to the start, and we happily boarded the school bus into town. Two miles into the woods, it came to a stop. The driver asked if we’d like to get out. “Are we there”? I asked. “Nope, but there’s a cinnamon bun store right over there in the woods.”

Incredibly, there was.  “It’s a nice walk for the folks from town as well as you trail rats.” said the driver.

We were dazzled! But even more impressive, once we reached the town was the free showers – no doubt a gesture of self -preservation on the part of the locals. In the midst of all the bustle though, was a booth with what looked like a pay phone. But the sign read: “This ain’t no chat phone. It’s a Sat phone,” and the price of a call was $2 a minute.

“Who you gonna call?” asked my husband. Showered and filled with cake and fresh brewed coffee, I called my mother because I would want to know I was safe were I in her shoes, knowing how remote and out of contact we had been. Not that she knew anyway because we didn’t want our proposed trip to set off any alarm bells for her. But with the deed behind us I was eager to chuff about it.

Her response to my barely contained glee was a little subdued. I thought maybe I was too good at keeping her in the dark. But then she announced that she was in a spot of trouble.

She had been plagued for a time by a bowel condition – divertriculitis, which can inflame the lower bowel and cause diarrhea, fever and pain. It had resulted in the careful exclusion of even the tiniest seeds from her diet but it was a constant in her life and so she hadn’t paid much attention to the onset of symptoms, at least initially.

She felt awful and had a lot of pain. But it wasn’t until there was a sudden foul seepage from her vagina that she became truly alarmed. As it turned out, the bowel had ruptured but had miraculously found a conduit out of her body via the vagina.

It had saved her life. This was a cold shower of a different sort for me high in the Rockies. But surgery would be needed. The planning for the eventual bowel resection and rejoining her bowel to avoid a colostomy wasn’t rushed. My mother was in her 80s, diabetic, with a touch of heart failure.

So a few months later, I met her and my sisters outside the operating room at St. Joseph’s Hospital  in Hamilton, a city 20 miles from the small town where my mother and her husband lived.  Our plan was to wait through the morning, and when we knew all was well, one of the family would drive her husband into the city to be with her when she was out of surgery.

I walked with her to the operating room door and took her hearing aids as my pager went off. She noticed my distraction and asked if there was a baby on the way.  “No, Mom, not today,” I said and kissed her as she disappeared through the doors. It was a hospital call, though not from mine.  Rather, this was from the hospital in the small town where Mom lived. The neighbour had called the ambulance for her husband, and the ER doctor was calling me to advise that he had had a massive heart attack and wasn’t likely going to make it. I should come immediately.

Now it got complicated but perhaps not in the way you think. It turns out that my mother had remarried 12 years before – and her new husband just happened to be the father of my husband at the time who was now my ex. Yes, it’s exactly that – your mother marrying your husband’s father.

So I called my current husband and asked him to  track down my ex, to tell him that his father was likely dying or dead. And then I drove –barely holding the speed limit to the small-town hospital.  My husband called me back to say they were trying to find my ex – he was on the road somewhere working but in the area, and they would relay the message to direct him to the ER immediately.

The doctor met me at the door – the blessing of a small town ER. “He didn’t make it, Jean,” he said, “but come, I want to show you something”.

The X-rays were still up on the grid, and they showed, unexpectedly, huge tumors in his chest, secondaries from a bowel cancer that had been diagnosed a few years earlier. “I think it’s a blessing,” the doctor offered sombrely. And my mom’s husband had arrived conscious and aware of his surroundings and grateful for care from familiar faces.

So I drove back to be with my mom. Much, much later, when she was out of surgery and conscious, she quietly asked where he was. “Put in your hearing aids, Mom,” I said. Her look told me all, as my sole presence had told her. She didn’t cry much – 84 years pares away at what you have to do to express loss. But I went through the story with every detail of his dying that I could relay for her.

We saw her through her recuperation and discharge from hospital before the funeral service was held a week later. I think she was grateful in the helplessness of being a post-op patient and not to have to call on anyone for help. She turned it over to me and my ex, and the tasks were assumed, divided, and dispatched.

Yes, we’d been able to find my ex; he rushed to the small-town hospital but didn’t make it in time. But if we’d been civil in our dealings before this event, through all the ensuing years we’ve been cordial. Not merely because his father had been both stepfather and father-in-law to me. Nor do I think it is a nod to the fact that his dad had been grandfather in two iterations to our three children. Rather, it’s because in moments of need or worry or out of respect, you actually do know who you are going to call.

So think of your own situation and get your callers lined up in advance.

Dr. Jean Marmoreo, 70, is a Toronto physician, writer, adventurer and athlete. She has been the fastest woman in her age group in her last three Boston Marathons and, 10 years ago, founded the women’s marathon training group,JeansMarines.