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Fellow Mortal Beings, in Real Life

It's nearing the day when my co-workers and I will be screened to determine our health insurance rate after the middle of the year.  Other than the unshakable sense among us of being invaded and ill-used (there may still be a few of us who decide at the very last minute that we ain't gonna step on the scale or roll up our sleeves), the event has given rise to some interesting conversations that might not have taken place otherwise.

Once upon a time when we were young, it was common to think that people who suffered from chronic illnesses were as strange and unfathomable as the patrons of the Mos Eisley Cantina.  Diabetes, arthritis, COPD, gout -- those were problems we associated with strangers in magazines or perhaps distant relatives whose entire lives seemed to be made up of doctor visits, cabinets filled with exotic potions and paraphernalia, and an endless litany of complaints.

At least, that was my experience.

But of course, we grow up and things change.

So, as the subject of healthcare buzzes around the office, it's perhaps inevitable that people will talk about their own situations. Including myself, we have at least three diabetics. Probably one or two more who just haven't been diagnosed yet. There's plenty of arthritis of the "wear & tear" variety -- we have technicians who spend a large part of their day lying on the ground in sub-freezing weather, twisting themselves into unnatural shapes to reach some engine part or other. There's tissue damage, broken bones that didn't heal right, hearing loss, inability to eat certain foods because of allergies, or because of tooth loss that was never properly addressed.   High blood pressure and high cholesterol that just won't come down.

It's all over the place, everywhere you look, once you start looking.  After awhile, everybody gets used to it.

Still, there are stories that can bring you up short.

Griff is one of our techs.  A bit shorter than average, built like a fireplug.  Not quite 40.  He gets sent to the triage clinic more than anyone else on our team -- he always seems to be banging his head or his body into something.  He's out for the afternoon, then right back at the job the next day.  Full of spit & vinegar -- it's easy to imagine one of his ancestors in buckskins and a floppy hat, chopping his way through the undergrowth with a musket, pursuing dinner for the family.  Not the delicate type, in other words.

We were talking about various benefits offered by the company.  One of them is long-term care coverage, for nursing homes and rehab facilities.

Griff's comment:  "No point in bothering with that.  Not one person in my family has ever lived that long.  Sixty is old age where I'm from."

Sixty.  His matter-of-fact acceptance of a short life span made me sad.

Certainly everyone knows someone who died "before their time."  Usually we think of a victim of homicide or a car wreck, or AIDS or a freak flu.  But in none of these cases is it a familial pattern.  In my family, lifespans in the 90s are fairly common.  My grandmother was mopping the floor the day after she came home from gallbladder surgery at age 83.  One uncle lived to age 94, extending his life with daily games of tennis and organic gardens that flourished in three climate zones.  His wife died last October, at age 90.  She was in an Alzheimer's unit for the last three years of her life, but she was in good health.

What is it they say? "Life is a marathon, not a sprint."  I think that's the secret to a long life.  Most of the people I've known who lived beyond 80 showed a certain serenity of nature.  It was hard to get them riled.  If they weren't exactly happy, the unhappiness was at a manageable level.  Some of the more irascible ones nonetheless showed a strong streak of solid confidence.  They liked themselves, even if you didn't share their opinion.

Or maybe it's yogurt.


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