I knew a guy, who knew a guy and that guy knew a different guy. And how many stories have started like that?
The guy was an old friend, not as old as me but old enough that I had just come from visiting him in a "Senior Care Facility". We use to just call them "Old Folks Homes". The fake flowers on the hall tables did nothing to hide the pervasive aroma wafting from metal covered dishes of plastic pancakes drizzled with dark congealed syrup and lumps of eggs half submerged in their own yellow ooze. The bright sprig of fresh parsley comically out of place as the cover was disappointingly removed and placed alongside a plastic container of apple juice, the straw poking out attentively. More disturbing was the background odor of recently soiled sheets in laundry carts as they waited to take their turn on the same service lift still humid from the trays packed full with this morning’s disappointment. Two or sometimes three mornings each week a resident would take his or her last ride down this same shaft to the concrete loading dock beside the dumpsters. A tried old station wagon awaited with darkened rear windows. It didn't matter, the passenger would not have gotten much enjoyment from the two mile view of four story apartments, empty store fronts interspersed with the occasional dentist office. At least when they arrived the flowers were real.
His guy was actually his grandson. We had all once spent a week together in a large house beside the Atlantic. Stunning sunshine on soft sand beaches and the gentle call of gulls had given way one night to the unfettered power of an autumn nor'easter. Surf pounded and shook the pilings on which the house perched. Windows moaned and doors creaked, the power failed and in candle lit shadows we sheltered and talked of the past. The boy, about ten or eleven at the time listened wide eyed as I spoke of watching rockets blast into the sky and flickering black and white images of a human man setting foot on an alien world. I had also mourned out loud the fact that we could never live long enough to truly explore the stars. It must have made more of an impression than I realized. He recognized me at once as I entered his grandfather's room that day. Now almost forty years old with a few premature greys at his temples he mentioned working for the different guy in the research funding department of a major pharmaceutical firm. A bunch of other guys were looking for some old guys, in what passes for good health when you're an old guy. Would I be interested in being interviewed for a project he couldn't tell me anything more about? We exchanged comms and curiosity gnawed at me the whole way home.
A lifetime, once thirty years or so and now a hundred years was not uncommon. How much of that was really yours to live? The first ten are spent dependent and controlled, in no way to live as we choose. The next ten years independence dawns, but still tethered to parents and places not truly our own. What then of the last twenty years? Hey, eighty may be the new sixty, but at 82, my joints ache and bones creak. Stairs are no longer taken two at a time and while I still walk an enjoyable nine holes once or twice a week, light footed nimble jogs have been replaced with the slow shuffle of age. Are the last ten to be spent again in a home not my own and no longer able to come and go at my own whim? Sharing my life with the smells of bad food and soiled sheets? So what's that leave? A good sixty years or so? It seems like a great deal of time... when you're twenty. As a small child did you ever experience the fear of the dark? The terror of unknown and unseen dangers lurking under the bed or in the closet.
The interview is arduous, several hours of questions probe all but forgotten details of my past. A physical exam in a tiny brightly lit room, both the air and the floor are far too cold. A young male physician pokes and prods, a younger female assistant observes, takes notes, and notices not at all my complete exposure. I realize at my age that most everyone who's not younger than I has stopped breathing, but it's still disappointing she doesn't even glance. Samples are taken, blood, urine, marrow from my hip. That one stings a bit! He asks if I still produce, umm... "seed"? With perhaps an indignant tone I reply, "With something to stimulate me, of course I can!" Did I see a hint of smile when I looked right at her as I said it? Perhaps I did, she makes a show of bending at the waist facing me to pull a small foil packet from a lower drawer and hands it to me with eyes locked to mine. "Will this help?" she asks, finally allowing her glance to wander. I look as deeply as possible into the presented cleavage and allow that, "It just might". "The rest room is across the hall, there are sample containers on the shelf." "Do I need to fill it?" "I'm not sure we have that much time, just do the best you can." At least that got a sly smile from her.
Again dressed and somewhat dignified, I am joined by two casually dressed clinicians. We turn from the hall into an indoor garden atrium and are met by a Yellow Labrador. His eyes are bright and the ferns and flowers sway vigorously in breeze from his wagging tail. At a bench we all sit, including the dog who eagerly acknowledges my outstretched hand by butting his head against my leg to be petted. "I'd like you meet Aldo", say the man who introduced himself earlier as Dr. Thomas. "How old do you think Aldo is?" I paused to consider. "He's full grown, not a puppy but still very young. A year or two judging by the coat and build", I say. "Aldo is seventeen", says Dr. Mike. "In so called Dog Years, he's a little older than you are right now". I'm sure my gaze spoke eloquently of my obvious skepticism. Before I could actually form words however, Dr. Thomas took a small display from his pocket and tapped at the screen. A sad eyed old hound padded slowly into a lab, each deliberate step punctuated with obvious effort. His tail swished slowly from side to side and saliva dripped from his tongue with each heavy breath. "Why don't we go inside and I'll explain why you're here".
"So what do you think, would you be interested?" asked Dr. Mike. The explanations had been technical, I got the gist even if I didn't grasp all the jargon. "In having a twenty year old body again?" "Of course I'm interested!" "This is a first stage human trial" said Dr. Thomas, "We're not prepared to be quite that aggressive just yet." "Would you still be interested in perhaps a forty, maybe forty five year old body to start?" "I think so, yes." "Well before you decide for sure you may want to see the rest of this”. Holding the display up in his hand. "You may find it interesting to know, we have done over 70 of these interviews. We are looking for five subjects for the trial, so far we have only three. You are perhaps the most qualified candidate so far and we'd love to have you. About half were disqualified during the interview." "And the rest?" I asked. He tapped the display screen again.
"That was pretty graphic" I offered. "Could I get a drink, water will do. I'll have something stronger at home." Dr. Mike drew a paper cup, as he filled it for me from the water cooler Dr. Thomas leveled his gaze at me and asked, "Still interested, do you have any questions?" "Yes and yes, I'm still interested and I do have just one question". "OK, I'll try to answer it as honestly as I can. What do you want to know?" I had already decided this was something I wanted more than most things I'd ever wanted, even after seeing what that poor dog had endured after entering the lab that day. This was worth any agony if the reward was even half of what Aldo had reaped. I also sensed that the question I had might end the interview right here and now. I had also already decided I needed to ask it anyway.
"What about my wife?" The good doctors exchanged a puzzled look. "What about her?" "Look, I understand what you're offering me. But think for a moment, what am I going to do with the forty or fifty years of life after you give it to me? Am I going to hang out at the mall with my friends, play golf, what?" Dr. Thomas referred to the folder in front of him. "You listed may interests and hobbies, golf, motorcycles, airplanes.." I interrupted, "You're both smart guys. Look at all the paperwork on that wall that says so. You remark at what good health I'm in. Does it occur to you to ask why?"
"I married later in life than most to a woman of exceptional beauty and grace. Not the superficial beauty of transient physical qualities, though she is certainly pleasant to view with my eyes. More pleasant still to hold in my arms and caress with my hands. Her true beauty is the enduring, rich beauty of personality and character and humor. Her love for me and mine for her remain the most fortunate and rewarding event in my life. My wife isn't listed there as a hobby or interest. Your questionnaire didn't have a category for 'Reason to keep on living every day', but that's exactly what she is. In the evening we lay side by side, once we curled around each other like kittens in a laundry basket. Now we try grasping for each other's hand without pulling a muscle or dislocating a hip. The darkness creeps in and I wonder if at dawn will we both open our eyes again? It has come to that time in life when a day is a gift not to be overlooked. I catch myself hoping if one of us does not open their eyes to see another day, that it's me. Instantly I curse myself as a coward every time I do. I know she would be just as lost and afraid as I, if I awoke one day alone. It isn't fair to even wish for her to bear that burden too, after all that she's put up with just living with me for all these years. I would love to have the joys of youth again but without her, in the end, they would just count as the loneliest years of my life. If she and I have only a few years left together, then together we'll make them the best years of our lives."
"Would you excuse us for a few moments?" "Look Mike I don't know how many..." The closing door muffled off the rest but an animated conversation continued on the other side for at least a full minute. A minute or so after a serene and composed Dr. Mike reopened the door and asked me to follow him. We approached a large double door and entered a sparsely furnished but elegant office dominated by its full width floor to ceiling picture window. The view of a forested upstate hillside dropped dramatically to a bend in the Hudson River below. From a cushion in the corner Aldo's tail thumped a greeting and a short dark man rose to extend his hand. "I am doctor Ravi, this is my research facility, please sit down."
"Doctors, if you will excuse yourselves, I would like to speak to Mr. Ottman privately." It's nice to meet you Dr. Ravi please call me Ger. Of course, and my friends call me Tamm, please do also, as I hope we will be friends soon. I am about to have tea, will you have some? "Coffee if possible would be nice, dark very little sugar." He moved to a sidebar and tapped at a screen. So I am told you are a very interested and qualified candidate for our program but that there may be an important impediment to having your unreserved commitment. So, Ger? You realize our protocol is established for five male participants between eighty and eighty five years of age?
How long before you expand to allow female participants, I asked? Well, of course that will happen, but perhaps not very soon. Years then? I asked again. Well, now you see the thing with protocols, they are meant with the best intent. Sometimes they get in the way of actually getting something important accomplished. In the ordinary fashion of things our animal trials would have all utilized one specific breed of canine. Aldo here however, has been my dog from the time he was a puppy. Had I waited to complete the standard trials, it would most likely been too late for him. "Please tell me that you are not trying to establishing a "Dog/Wife" equivalency", I interrupted.
The mug was warm in my tired old hands and the rich aroma sucked deep into my nostrils revived me slightly. He set the tea on his desk and made a slight motion over a sensor. A holo appeared above the polished oak of a young woman. She turned to face me and smiled, dark eyes and hair, a delicate red dot on her forehead just below a blue trimmed headscarf. He must have seen my eyes widen, "Lovely isn't she?" He asked. Indeed, I replied. Your daughter?
No, we didn't have time for a child. This is my wife, Aldo was her gift to me on our first wedding anniversary. I came home a few weeks later after a dull day at the lab. When I shut off the auto in the garage I could hear him crying and howling in the house. I found her on the floor of our kitchen, he was at her side shaking and terrified. I thought she had been murdered. There were vegetables cut up on the counter, a pot of stock boiled out dry on the stove, and the knife on the floor. The coroner was a friend, it was an embolism she was gone in an instant. He also told me she had been about six weeks pregnant, it would have been a boy. Aldo and I helped each other through the most difficult times that followed. I returned to the lab after a month but couldn't bear to leave him alone at home. He has been by my side ever since, in a way he is all I have left of her.
So you bent the rules a bit? "Yes, quite. But then it is my research project. I believe I can exercise some discretion." Are you willing to use that discretion in this case, doct.. Tamm? "She will need to qualify physically of course and how do you think your wife will react to the presentation you viewed earlier? That will be a factor obviously." Honestly, I'm in much better physical shape than she, but as far as being tough enough to cope with what you've shown me. If it means being together she has always been every bit as tough as I am. At times she has shown far more determination than I've ever possessed. All we can do is ask.
I'll have an appointment set up for later in the week then Ger and I hope this is the start of a long friendship between us. I hope so too Tamm, I hope so too!