Getting old is no fun. The worst thing about it is that you hurt all the time. I’ve got a bum knee and a bad hip. Old war wounds. I don’t know what I would do without Advil. My cousin, who is younger than I am, says old age is not for sissies, and I agree.

When you get to be sixty, your friends start dropping like flies. I lost another one last year. An old college buddy died of cancer. It was his second go-round on the cancer front. He had colon cancer, but he survived that. A few years later, the disease showed up in his liver, and that got him. A few years ago another friend discovered that he had a tumor the size of a golf ball in one of his lungs. They took that out, and he’s still alive and kicking. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. You’re always looking over your shoulder when you’re old enough to keep an AARP card in your wallet.

My wife, who is twenty years younger than I am, watches me like a hawk. She’s worried that I will get senile or develop Alzheimer’s, both of which run in my family. Forget about it, I tell her. I’m fine. Worry about me when I get to be eighty. That seems to be the pattern. All my aunts and uncles on my mother’s side got dotty at the end. The good news is that they lived to be eighty or ninety.

I tell my wife to stop holding her breath. I’m fine, I say. As long as I can work the crossword puzzle, I’m okay. The New York Times crossword puzzle: that’s my Alzheimer’s test, I tell her. When I can’t do the Friday or Saturday puzzle, then you can start worrying.

One day last week, I came back from my walk and discovered that I had lost my house keys. Unfortunately, my wife was home; it was her day off. I had to drive across town to the business park where I take my morning constitutional. I found the keys in the parking lot.

The next day my wife told the story to everybody at work. They all thought it was pretty funny. I accused her of stopping strangers on the street to tell them about her mentally incompetent husband.

Actually, old age is a laughing matter–if aches and pains and the occasional lapse of memory are all you have to worry about. When it gets serious is when you are very old. I learned this last year when my mother, who’s ninety-one, had a stroke. She survived, but the life she lives today is no life, or so it seems to me. She can’t talk or feed herself. She spends her days in bed or in a wheelchair, looking out the window. She doesn’t seem to be in any discomfort or distress. It is as if the blow that took away her mind mercifully took her feelings as well.

And then there’s Walter. Walter is an old Dutchman that I met in 1988 when I first started going to AA meetings in the city where I now make my home. Walter was old then, in his eighties. At that time he had been sober for forty years. There were other old farts at that meeting, but nobody else had as much sobriety as Walter. I loved sitting next to Walter at meetings. I’d sit between Walter and another senior citizen named Frank, and when it was my turn to talk, I’d brag that between the three of us-Walter, Frank, and I-we had over seventy-five years of sobriety. Since I had been sober for only a few months, that always got a laugh.

I began driving Walter to meetings after that. I guessed that at his age, he had trouble driving at night, so I asked him if he would like me to pick him up, and to my surprise, he said yes. I was surprised because Walter is an independent cuss. Touchy, too. He wasn’t offended, however. He seemed to like the idea of having taxi service.

I drove Walter to meetings for ten years. I didn’t expect my tour of duty to be that long, but that’s the way it worked out. At first I didn’t mind; I enjoyed Walter’s company. Walter had a checkered past, as he would tell you himself. He had some wonderful stories to tell. Once he walked from Niagara Falls, New York, to Oakland, California, he told me. It was in the winter, too. The year was 1923. He was seventeen years old, he said. He hitched rides and hopped freight trains, but most of the time he walked. I asked Walter why he left New York, and he said it was because of a woman. He had a girlfriend in Oakland.

He had other stories to tell, too, stories from his drinking days, some of which he told in meetings and some he didn’t. He often told his bus to Portland story in meetings, about how he woke up one morning in a bus station in Portland, Oregon, not knowing where he was or why he was there. The last thing he remembered he was drinking beer at a bar in Oakland. He told about waking up in jail, too, and being told by somebody in another cell that he had shot a cop. It wasn’t true, but Walter didn’t find that out until they let him go.

Some stories he didn’t tell in meetings were how he quit smoking and how he lost his teeth. He threw his cigarettes out the window one morning, he said, because he had a cold, and they didn’t taste good. His teeth got the same treatment. He was having trouble with his teeth, so he walked into a dentist’s office and told the dentist to pull them all, which he did. Afterwards, as he was leaving the office, he almost passed out, Walter said. Tough old bird, that Walter.

Walter began to fail badly a year or so ago. His hearing went first, then his legs. Taking him to meetings became a chore, but, I told my wife, it was the only way he got out of the house at all. I’d like to have a tape recording of some of our conversations on the drive in recent months.

Me: Blah, blah, blah.

Walter: What?

Walter could walk, more or less, with the help of a cane, but getting him in and out of my truck was an adventure.

They put Walter’s wife in a nursing home two years ago, and about a month ago they did the same thing to Walter. They’re both in Sunset Acres in Hayward. Walter didn’t go quietly. I got the story from Mae, a shirttail relative of Walter’s wife, who in recent years had looked after the old couple in exchange for room and board. I don’t know if what Mae told me is fact or fiction-probably a bit of both-but this is what she said.

Walter got sick, and Mae called Veronica, Walter’s daughter-in-law, because Walter wouldn’t go to the hospital. Veronica called for an ambulance, but when she did, all she got was a busy signal, so she called 9-1-1. The fireman arrived first, and they tried to get Walter into the emergency van without much luck until they strapped him onto a gurney.

“He smacked one of them,” Mae said.

“He hit a fireman?” I asked.

Mae said she had gone down to the firehouse the next day to apologize. “You should see his face,” she said. “It’s black and blue.”

I told the AA folks about Walter’s little adventure, and most of them thought it was pretty funny. They seemed to be more delighted than surprised that Walter had hit a fireman. I had everyone sign a card that I brought with me to the meeting, and a day or so later, I went to see Walter at Sunset Acres.

As far as senior homes go, Sunset Acres is neither the best nor the worst, but believe me, I wouldn’t want to live there. The place has “last stop” written all over it. There are lots of people in blue or white coats bustling around, and lots of pale, wrinkled old people in sweat clothes sitting in wheelchairs.

I didn’t recognize Walter when I saw him. He was sitting in the corner of one of the common rooms, his chin on his chest. One of the employees roused him for me and wheeled him out to the foyer where I could sit down and get a good look at him.

He seemed okay, not in any distress. We talked for a few minutes, or rather I talked and he listened. He kept nodding off. I put the card that his AA friends had signed into his hands, and he looked at that for awhile, and he seemed to be pleased.

“Tell me one thing, Walter,” I said just before I left. “Did you really pop a fireman?”

That seemed to rouse him. He smiled. “Maybe,” he whispered.

When I left, I looked back, half expecting him to be shaking his fist at me, his eyes bright with mischief and defiance, but his chin was back on his chest.

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