Two years ago, I got the surprise of my life. I also got a quadruple bypass. Both events were traumatic and required that I retire after thirty-eight years of family practice.
Both of these events fostered significant adjustments, to my lifestyle, and my sense of identity. It was daunting, that after telling people for decades, “No, I’m not doctor; that just what I do for a living”, that I discovered that I wasn’t just fooling other people, I had been fooling myself as well. My sense of myself, who I was, and what I carried as my identity took a major hit. I was cast adrift to find another me. I was almost seventy years old, and I needed to chart my future, and grieve my lost past.
Then came ‘cardiac rehab’. What can I say about that? I had prided myself on healthy living for all of my adult life. Good hearty eating habits, healthy foods and exercise, (in moderation), but in the end genetics had been my downfall. I duly reported to ‘rehab’ and was put on the treadmill, the television was tuned to the local news, and I walked. Then I walked some more, and then I walked some more. It was not difficult, it was boring. There had to be something else. Turns out there was.
It was like the Pushmi-Pullu animal. I needed to move forward, but I missed the past me. Rehab seemed more designed to create acceptance in my age-related disabilities, then to show me the path into my future. I didn’t want to slip into senility and I didn’t want to accept that the young man in my head had outrun the old man that housed it.
It’s been said that physicians make the worst patients. Probably true, an egotistical bunch as a whole. So, I quit rehab. Instead, I took a job with a small landscaping firm. I mowed lawns, I trimmed bushes and I worked my butt off. It was hot, the work was hard and I was alone. With my thoughts, and with what I might become. There were times when I was convinced that someone would find me lying dead on their lawn. There were times when I would climb into the truck, crank up the air conditioning and gasp for breath. But I persisted, and I got stronger.
Soon, I wasn’t picking up the little side jobs, I was getting regular customers. Soon, I was busy. I had regular schedules, lawns and yards that I loved and other ones I absolutely dreaded. Every one of them was unique like the people who lived there. I became attached to them. I didn’t just mow their yards, I trimmed them, primped them and made them as beautiful as I could because that is what I would do if they had been my own yards. I loved it, even when it was impossibly hard. Even when I had to admit that I needed help. I loved it all.
Sometimes the people would wave to me. I would get so that I could recognize them. Their families, sons and daughters. I would trim around their playhouses, swing sets and pick up their forgotten toys after they disappeared into the tall grass. Occasionally, they would speak to me. Sometimes they would press a few dollars into my hand.
I saw what they saw. I was not under any misconceptions. A bearded slightly paunchy almost seventy-year-old man with a silver earring in his left ear. Driving a beat-up old Ford F350 with a trailer full of beat-up mowers and trimmers, never working fast, but working steady. A laborer, not someone with opinions, or thoughts. Not someone trying to recreate himself. Just an old man. I learned that unlike my past life, except for anecdotal comments, I was not a particularly noteworthy individual. Another identity shock for me.
I became attached to the yards, the lawns, patios, firepits and shrubs. Each one had its unique quirks and personalities. The ones that grew quickly, the ones that didn’t drain well, the ones that were covered in dog turds the size of my wrist. The nurse who worked nights and slept during the day. The broker that worked from home and never moved from in front of his big screen television with the stock market feed. The secretive widows who watched me work through slits in their window blinds. I took the care personally; they were my responsibility, the yards and the people.
In the fall and winter, I plowed snow in my trusty beat-up Ford. I got up at 2 a.m. and put on my hat and coat with the company logo and plowed parking lots, bowling alleys, gas stations. I plowed driveways, shoveled sidewalks and spread salt. When I couldn’t do that anymore, I hired a sidekick to ride in the truck with me and shovel by proxy.
I can no longer do the work, and this year at the end of the snow season I told the boss that I was done. I don’t know what comes next, but on rainy days like today, I think about the yards and the people. I hope they found someone that will take care of them the way it mattered for me. I will certainly miss it I know.
Now on to the next big thing, whatever that may be.