There’s nothing particularly serious about cracked ribs, as long as fragments of bone don’t attack your lungs or some other vital organ. But they leave you feeling like the apostle Paul: shipwrecked, beaten and lapidated.
I came about mine in a superlatively stupid way. The ceiling-high curtains were open at the top, letting more light than we wanted into the bedroom of our small rented apartment in Montmartre, a stone’s throw from the basilica of Sacré Coeur. So I climbed onto a rickety wooden chair, then onto a small desk with a perilously thin top, to close the gap. As the desk started to cave in, I stepped as gingerly as I could back onto the chair, which immediately tipped over. I crashed against the hard wooden corner of the bed, ending up with scrapes on a leg and a foot, and a large hematoma in the middle of my back. The next day confirmed what my wife and I both suspected: cracked ribs. Nothing serious—they’ll heal by themselves. In the meantime, any false move (which means nearly any move at all, not to mention a cough, a burp or a laugh), and they ache like kidney stones.
If I were still thirty-five, I could take this without so much moaning and complaining. But I’m twice that now, and the ageing carcass is giving out. The other day I met our daughter-in-law’s nonagenarian grandfather for the first time, and all we talked about for the ten minutes we spent together was how stiff and sore our knees had gotten. Riding the Paris Métro used to be fun, or at least routine. Now it’s an adventure, a relentless challenge (as they remind you in the London Underground) to “mind the gap!” Especially since old codgers like me are liable to trip over it or to fall right through. Mind the gap, or you could end up with more than a few cracked ribs.
To anybody who’s read this far, I’d like to make a point about all this. It’s a plea, really, an appeal for mercy. There’s a noticeable graying of Western society, with couples in countries like Italy, France and even Russia producing far too few children to prevent a precipitous decline in population. On the other hand, we’re living much longer on average than our forebears did (“too much longer,” my mother acidly remarked in her ninety-second year). Which means that there are way more old folks around than there used to be. (It’s P.C. nowadays to call them Seniors, as if that sounded more “venerable” than “old.”)
Which leads me to the appeal.
It’s a simple request to all the under-sixty youngsters among us to recognize and appreciate the stresses and strains brought on by advancing age. From short-term memory loss to stiff knees and an awkward shuffle—not to mention serious maladies such as congestive heart disease or Alzheimer’s—it’s not easy to grow old, even if the gift of grandchildren and a more leisurely pace can transfigure one’s later years. It’s not easy to grow old, especially when young people take it for granted you’re senile, and pregnant women offer you their seat on the bus.
So although we’re not as agile as we used to be, and doing dumb things to produce cracked ribs might occur more often than it used to, we’d still appreciate being regarded and treated as adults. Adults who may need a helping hand now and then, but adults who still cherish warm friendships and good conversation. One of the most difficult aspects of growing old, in fact, is the feeling that you’re more or less abandoned by everyone except your wobbly peers (their knees hurt, too).
If the church we attend really is the Body of Christ, then that’s the first place we should look around, to rediscover the elderly in our midst, to appreciate their worth as persons of experience and perspective, and to accompany them along the often difficult and painful pathway that leads to their final time on earth. And to do so with genuine love and affection, patience and good will.
After all, if things go well, sooner or later all of us will be joining their ranks.