My knee was throbbing, and my mind clouded as I pulled up my wheelchair to the table at the Elks Rehabilitation Hospital in Boise. I was there after a knee replacement the week before and very grateful that the process of healing had begun. I was not eager to engage in "recreational therapy" with a few people I saw as being in worse shape than I was: Besides, I told myself, I work crossword puzzles, write, read and keep my mind active in loads of ways. I didn't need this hour spent in the tiny game room off the physical therapy unit of the facility. Nonetheless, I approached this brief time with what I thought was an open mind. I realized later that I was to learn an important lesson that had little to do with the actual therapy and more with compassion.
The game we played was Scattergories. It is, briefly, a game where one person throws a letter-imprinted dice, a category is randomly chosen, and then each person thinks of as many words as possible starting with that letter. I have played it in the past with my daughters and their sophisticated friends, and we have shared many laughs over the odd choices we have made. It's a mind-stretcher and a lot of fun. The game is interesting on another level: When a category such as "music artists" is chosen, the obvious generation differences are often hilarious and also a means for discussion of the trivia each generation shares. In this past session, for example, I wrote down "sweetie" as a term of endearment, a word my daughters would never use.
In this case, there was another layer of difference: One or two of the people playing had suffered some brain impairment and even the loss of full use of fine motor skills required in putting pencil to paper. We managed, for two separate sessions, to get through the game. In my game-playing hat, I had to stifle the inappropriate impulse to want to win, an old and childish devil lurking within, and a quite unreasonable impatience with my fellow players. I kept reminding myself that winning this contest was not the goal. Practicing some mental and physical skills was.
That night when I told one of my daughters about the afternoon, we laughed at the thought of the different times I had played this game. It was a kind of gentle joke that I would be transferring my playing groups as the years went on.
Later, though, I had some pangs. Perhaps of conscience or sadness, they got me thinking about the place I had just been. Above all, I did not want to be "making fun" of or being condescending to any of the people I shared time with that day. I do laugh about silly things, and I think humor is an essential ingredient of a happy life, but not if someone else is the target. I have never liked jokes about senility, and the irritation I see sometimes on the faces of those who deal with feeble or cantankerous older people.
Oddly, though, as I grow older and my hair gets whiter, I tend to make more jokes about being in my age group than I would if I were younger—humor as a way to stave off grappling with the reality that I am really in an age bracket that always seemed so far away. By making fun of myself I think I can somehow distance from the "others" with white hair and multiple ailments. News flash: I'm one of those "others," part of that gang.
When one of my fellow Scattergories game players spent a couple of minutes before the game explaining to the rest of us that we needed to keep our erasers clean, I thought to myself, "There but for the grace of God go I." Indeed. I count myself lucky to have been blessed with relatively good health and a rich, full life. I (knock on wood) have not been visited—yet—by the ills many others in my age bracket have experienced. But I hope to be more tolerant of those whose late-life experiences and woes I may soon share.
Before I ever again am impatient with someone due to an ailment, before I give in to the tendency to joke inappropriately about age-related characteristics, I need to remind myself that "there go I" ... sooner than I would wish.