Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Aging Without Grace

I have a patient who weights about 80 pounds soaking wet and tops out at about 4 foot 9. She is beyond petite, but her personality appears to be where she compensates for her diminutive stature. She is to put it mildly, a pistol.

Actually she falls more into the category of cranky old battle axe-but for whatever reason I have fallen for her and her cranky pants demeanor.

She is bald and slightly stooped and resembles the actress, Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch in the film version of The Wizard of Oz. Her husband is about 6'5 and weighs at least 250 and is without question the most henpecked SOB on the face of the earth. From the moment she sits down until the moment she stands to leave after her chemotherapy she does not draw breath. She instead produces a constant stream of bitching and complaining about everything from the dinner menu to her children, the weather and the economy.

I, being the obnoxious sort, have now developed a relationship with her that allows me to interupt her perpetual bitching with, "For the love of everything M, stop fussing, you needed to breath." Pause.
"Oh, Patti...cackle cackle cackle."

There are other patients who will see her coming and actually pull the curtains around their area for fear of having to listen to her bird dog her husband all day, and some who will ask to move. When she is in rare form she will ask everyone around her what kind of cancer they have, where it started, if they have a colostomy, and so on. I have actually interrupted her treatise on bowel movement management more than once to save a patient who was looking green at the gills.

The first time I had her as a patient she was with me for four hours and at the end I said, "Mrs. M what kind of work did you do before you retired?"


"I bet you were a lawyer," I said.

"Oh no dearie, I don't like to argue with people."

Silence throughout the clinic followed by an eruption of belly laughing from every patient and family member within 50 feet of her.

She glared.

She pouted.

Finally, I stopped laughing, wiped my eyes and said, "M, you are lucky it isn't storming because you would have been a lightning rod with that whopper you just told."

She grinned. Her husband to his credit spent the entire time behind his newspaper, for fear of her seeing his smile I'm sure.

Turns out she was a fifth grade teacher. I cringe at the thought of her tending to one of my kids. I can only imagine her teaching style would be brusque and uncompromising to a fault. As petite as she is-she completely fills the room with the force of her personality, no doubt a vestige from her days of being a tiny woman in a man's world.

She is a pill to be sure, but I find her transparent nosiness and irritability somewhat charming. I appreciate the fact that she does not want to be the, "sweet little old lady with cancer." She intends to be a complete and total pain in the ass-and most often she succeeds.

She continues to care for her husband and remind him about his doctor appointments and medications, plan their meals and grocery list, and set times for them to perform their yard work together. "If I don't get him out there early he'll keel over in the sun honey and I'll play hell dragging him in the garage to recover."

There is a deeply ingrained cultural myth about aging women, mothers and grandmothers that is I suppose meant to be a compliment or at least it was, but in today's world the constraints of being the doting grandmother would be too restrictive to a generation of women who worked outside the home earning their own salaries, and no longer define themselves based on their relationship with or without a man.

She is more a caricature than I think she realizes, and if she had been born fifty years later she might not have developed such a coarse way of dealing with the world. The reality is however, that she is a remarkably spry 80 year old woman with cancer playing the cards life has dealt her with spirit and determination and an unwavering belief in herself.

What's not to like about that?


  1. I knew it! She had to be a teacher. : )
    She reminds me of my 5th grade teacher (who would be about 10 yrs older). Mrs H didn't want any babies in her class; she would threaten to turn over a table and wrap a rope around it to make a playpen for anyone who acted infantile in her room. Three cheers for the pistol women!

  2. wow a playpen! That is a new kind of fierce!