by Jayne Moore Waldrop
Last summer, my husband and I got a new puppy, a black Labrador retriever. We named her Daisy Finch after characters in two favorite books, The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird. Like many southerners, I’ve almost always had a dog or been looking for the next one. Our family had been without one since the death of our sweet 14-year-old beagle Lulu. This time we settled on a Lab. They’re great outdoor companions, and we are outside people. Retrievers are bred for bird hunting and, although we don’t hunt, we love hiking and being on the water. We wanted a dog that would have the stamina for long trails and also appreciate swimming at the lake where we hope to live after retirement. Daisy took to the water on her first trip.
From the time she was eight weeks old, we’ve worked through her nighttime crying, house training, and stomach sensitivities to chicken-based dog food. We’re still working on obedience training, chewing, invasive sniffing, jumping, and lunging. At nine months old, she weighs more than 70 pounds. She’s a beautiful animal, an intelligent, tough girl who undoubtedly can outperform either of us on any given trail.
At six months, we sent her for two weeks of intensive obedience school with a highly-regarded trainer who specializes in retrievers. Afterward, the trainer described her as smart, intense, and stubborn. The trainer doubted that we’d be able to control Daisy without a shock collar, the kind that allows the human handler to send an electric jolt when the dog misbehaves.
We resisted the shock collar. We tried other methods, going from a harness to a gentle leader to a prong collar, which uses interlocking links with metal prongs to create a tension that corrects when the dog pulls. The prong collar comes closest to working. You see, Daisy’s a car chaser, even on a leash. Her lunges are hard to predict; walking her requires an enormous amount of upper body strength, even with the prong collar. She has a high prey drive, we’re told. Our 15-year-old cat concurs and steers clear when possible.
Since last summer, the stars seem to have aligned against us. I’ve jokingly called it “The Year We Fell Apart.” Sometimes there’s truth in humor. Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. Health issues have pushed our human frailties right up under our noses.
We’ve both struggled with bad backs — mine from scoliosis that occasionally screams with overexertion, my husband’s from a pinched sciatic nerve. He had successful back surgery in December. About the time he healed and felt normal again, he went in to have his heart zapped to fix an arrhythmia. The procedure worked.
In January, I started physical therapy to strengthen my crooked back. I also went for a DEXA scan, a common bone density test for postmenopausal women, who are most likely to develop problems. My test results were bad. A few weeks ago, I was diagnosed with osteoporosis, that dreaded and seemingly old-age condition with significant bone density loss and a high risk of hip and spine fracture. When did this happen? How could this happen? I’m staggered by this new reality.
My primary care physician also seemed shocked by the DEXA test results. She even double-checked to make sure there wasn’t a mix-up in scans at the diagnostic center. There was no mistake. The scan clearly showed my unmistakable left-leaning spinal curvature. She looked troubled.
“You’re so young. You’re so healthy,” she said. “I’m really surprised.”
So am I. In fact, I’m so surprised I’m still trying to wrap my head around this diagnosis. I knew I was at an elevated risk because I’m a white, small-framed female. But I don’t smoke. I drink in moderation and only occasionally. There’s no family history of osteoporosis, and my two older sisters have nice strong bones. I’ve had a lifetime of weight-bearing exercise with walking, hiking, and occasional ventures into running. What the hell? Suddenly, I feel old and frail, like I should be bubble-wrapped. Like I should find a chair, sit down, and stay put.
Osteoporosis causes bones to become weak and brittle. In its online health guides, the Mayo Clinic explains that “bone is living tissue that is constantly being broken down and replaced. Osteoporosis occurs when the creation of new bone doesn’t keep up with the removal of old bone.” Osteoporotic bones — most commonly the hip, wrist, and spine — can fracture with a fall or from “mild stresses such as bending over or coughing.” Oh, geez.
Until a few weeks ago, I was totally okay with getting older. I’m not embarrassed by my age. I’m 62. I’m brave enough to include my birth year on my Facebook profile.
There’s a saying that getting old isn’t for sissies, but I’ve tried to embrace aging with an optimistic defiance, a belief that I’m still me, though packaged somewhat differently. Perhaps that’s my way of fighting it. I want to defy those old lady stereotypes, but I also want to resist the extraordinary societal pressure that requires the cosmetic illusion of youthfulness at any cost.
A few years ago, I quit coloring my hair and let my natural grays show. When I look around a table of friends my age or older, I’m usually the only one with undyed hair. In my 50s, I tried Botox a few times until I decided an unfurrowed brow wasn’t worth the weird headachy feeling that came after the injections. When I dress up, I might still wear Spanx, but most days I wear jeans or leggings. I’m a writer, so I spend a lot of time alone in my home office. There’s not a lot of primping required.
But we all know that, like the other -isms, ageism is real in our society. I understand why people—women and men—dye their hair, have their eyes done, and fight their perceived obsolescence every step of the way. We become invisible as we age, especially women. That fact used to bother me, but I’ve come to appreciate invisibility like a cloak, a mantle of personal freedom. Since no one’s looking, why put on makeup to make runs to the mall or grocery, a decision I wouldn’t have dared to make as a still-visible younger woman. I’ve shifted the energy and time once required for high-maintenance beauty routines to things I enjoy and value more.
I’m reminded of the tagline from a 1972 commercial for Chiffon Margarine, a now-extinct brand, in which the actress Dena Dietrich portrayed Mother Nature in a lush garden setting. Upon learning that she’d been tricked into thinking that the margarine tasted as good as butter, she scornfully warned, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” as she threw a fierce bolt of lightning.
My personal decisions about aging are not about being nice. I just grew weary of trying to fool Mother Nature. What’s inside matters more than the outside, right? And now, the osteoporosis diagnosis confirms my gut feeling that life is no longer about appearances, that maybe it never was. It’s all about what’s going on inside. My heart, my head, and now my bones.
I always tell people it’s never too late to follow a dream, to find one’s voice. That belief has become my mantra. Since getting my MFA at 55, I’ve had several stories and poems published in literary journals, spent two years as a book columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal, and served as literary liaison at a literacy center. My debut book of poetry called Retracing My Steps, published in early 2019, was a finalist in the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Competition. Inside the book, the last sentence on the acknowledgments page reads: “It’s never too late.”
I’ve started weekly bisphosphonate treatments to stem further bone loss and perhaps, if I’m lucky, rebuild some bone. Each day I take megadoses of calcium and Vitamin D. Although I want to sit down and stay safe, that’s the worst thing I can do. I have to get up. I have to keep moving with daily weight-bearing exercise to regain density. Building bone is a slow process. I won’t even have a follow-up scan for two years to learn if the treatments are working.
It feels like Mother Nature has thrown a lightning bolt and changed my life. I want to feel sorry for myself, but deep down, I realize shit happens. There are much worse diagnoses that could have been delivered. Other people walk harder paths every day, not only from aging, but from the moment they’re born. I’ve been fortunate along the way. Until this, previous medical conditions have been fixed by wearing corrective lenses (nearsightedness) or with a simple operation (hernia repair) or by taking a daily pill (thyroid disease). But there’s no easy fix for osteoporosis. There are no guarantees.
My doctors tell me not to do anything stupid to increase my already-high fracture odds. The list is long. Reduce obvious risks in the home. Remove tripping hazards. Don’t wear high heels, even ones that were considered sensible prior to this diagnosis. Don’t lift heavy objects from the floor or engage in activities like riding jet skis that could cause compression fractures in my spine. Don’t sweep the floors or vacuum too vigorously or jump on trampolines. Those last ones are pretty easy to give up.
But it’s not easy giving up the things I love, like being out in the world and exploring its beauty. On a recent trip to the American southwest, we hiked some easy trails in Sedona, the Grand Canyon (above the rim) and the Valley of Fire. I used hiking sticks for stability, but a couple of times I turned back when the rocks were too loose or the climbs too steep. In those moments, the life-altering effect of this diagnosis loomed large. My world is constricting with new limitations coming from within. Literally.
I’m trying to find my way on this unexpected path. I’m doing everything I can, but I confess that today I feel much less confident and defiant about aging. As I read the research, I find this statement repeated in multiple sources: “It’s never too late.” To start the treatment. To stop bone loss. To possibly rebuild bone. I want to believe that’s true.
In the spirit of reducing risks, the most immediate and difficult decision I face involves Daisy. The hard reality now is that we are a very poor match. She’s a big, athletic, body-slamming dog that needs a lot of exercise at a time when I feel like my roughhousing days are over. While I can’t eliminate all risks from my life, the truth is walking her or playing fetch is more risk than I can handle right now. To admit that makes me feel like a coward. I wish things were different, both for Daisy and me.
After much discussion and many tears, we’ve found a new home for her. We all agree it’s for the best. She’s going to live with the family that owned and loved her father, who died not long after Daisy’s birth. They’ve been heartbroken since his death, and Daisy looks just like him. Her new people live on a farm where she can run. She’ll see and play with her sister and brother on a regular basis. She may even learn to hunt.
It seems like the best possible outcome for everyone concerned, but I still ugly cry at the thought of giving her up, which more than anything, makes me—not just my bones—feel fragile and changed. I love dogs, and I love her.
While she’s still with me, I hold her close and breathe in her smell. She licks my face and hands. It’s for the best. I want to believe that’s true.
Images by Jayne Moore Waldrop
Jayne Moore Waldrop is a Kentucky writer and author of Retracing My Steps (Finishing Line Press 2019). Her story, “A Score Lower Than My Age,” appeared in Deep South Magazine. Follow her on Facebook at Jayne Moore Waldrop, Author or on Twitter @JayneWaldrop.