Kerth: Living a life that’s greater than the sum of its prescriptions

It is the gathering of the clans. Hands are clasped, shoulders are hugged, and the children are sent aside to play their children’s games while the adults speak of matters meant for adult ears only.

But one child lingers at the edge of his playmates. He has grown tired of children’s games, and he wishes to know the secrets that adults share with each other.

The ladies who jounce babies on their hips laugh and joke with each other to one side. But the boy has no interest in what they have to say.

The fathers, too, are gathered together, telling loud tales of thrilling conquests and spectacular defeats. But it is not their tales that pull most strongly at the boy, either.

He gazes at the table where the elders sit and speak softly to each other in voices made hoary by the ravages of time. What adventures they must have known! What lands they must have visited far beyond the horizon! What peoples they must have met, and what tales those peoples must have shared!

Each elder has lived a long time and must surely have come to a deep understanding of life. There must be wisdom there. There must be the knowledge of which parts of life are mere chaff and which are the seed-kernels that make life worth living. And because each elder is so close to life’s end, how careful they must be to waste no words on matters of no meaning.

Oh, the tales the elders must be telling to each other at their table!

The boy is curious and impatient, and he cannot help himself. He must know all that they know, and he cannot wait for long life to provide the answers. He cannot bear the thought of waiting decades to hear what wise words elders speak to each other in their private circle.

The boy drifts away from the circle of children, edging ever closer to the table where the elders talk, until their words begin to take shape for his ears:

“… since I’m up to 3 milligrams of Coumadin, my protime is…”

“… titanium hip replacement. It’s much better than my ceramic one, because …”

“… PSA levels, so now it’s a full prostate biopsy …”

The little boy had no idea the world of elders could be so wondrous or so baffling. It is almost like a secret language, and yet each elder nods knowingly as the others speak.

“… pap test was fine, but the mammogram …”

“… lowered my LDL with statins, and my triglycerides …”

“… didn’t show up on the CAT scan or MRI, but …”

The boy yawns and drifts back toward the group of children and their games. Maybe he can wait for elderly wisdom to come to him in its due time after all.

Was it ever thus at the gathering of the clans? Thousands of years ago before the last ice age – after debating whether global cooling was avoidable – did elders sit through meals and explain how many strips of willow bark they now chew to lessen their knee pain? Did they speculate whether pine or poplar was a better choice when they carved their next wooden leg?

Or is it only a modern obsession for elders to spend every moment of their remaining days recounting their medical adventures, some of them decades old?

Or are medical adventures the only thrill-ride left for us as elders?

For the record, I am an elder, and so is my wife. We pay elder rates at the movie theater. We have an elder insurance card with nine numbers on it.

As elders, we each have a medical history – and some of it might curl your hair if we took the time to tell you about it. We might not win gold in a medical-adventure Olympics, but I’m pretty sure we’d go home with a medal.

But still, when my wife and I go out to eat a meal or see a show with some of our fellow elders, we don’t want the core of our social discourse to be doctor-related. Our closest friends agree with us, and even though many of them would also be Med-Olympic medalists, we are able to spend most of the time sharing adventures that have nothing to do with pill bottles or invasive procedures.

And that is why they are our closest friends.

It’s an understanding between us – “We know you’ve had medical problems. You know we have, too. We’re here if you need to talk about it. But unless you need to, let’s talk about anything else, for goodness sake.”

But all too often, there are also those other elders at the gathering of the clans. The ones always striving for Med-Olympic gold.

Look, when you’re cuffed by a cop, he tells you that you have the right to remain silent – and that’s probably good advice. When you’re prodded by a doctor, he tells you that you have a right to keep your medical records completely private.

And that, it seems to me, is good advice, too.

At least when you gather for a pleasant lunch with the clans.

Because you have the right to remain silent about your prostate while I sip my clam chowder.

• Tom “T. R.” Kerth is a Sun City resident and retired English teacher from Park Ridge. He can be reached at

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