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  • Zelema Harris

Aging: My Journey | Part 1

Retirement 2006 with Board of Trustees
Retirement 2006 with Board of Trustees

The early stages of aging are almost invisible. Over time, the incremental changes in my memory, appetite and motor skills grew in intensity, and finally, I felt the jolting impact of growing old.  Two strange things happened to me recently that gave me a deeper understanding of aging


One year ago, after my 83rd birthday, I was discussing impactful Black women with my eldest daughter, Narissa.  During the conversation I was shocked I could not recall the names of Stacey Abrams or bell hooks.*  Both women are well known—Stacey in politics and bell hooks* in academia and literature.  Not being able to access the right words had happened to me before, but never with such well-known figures.  I am grateful to Google as an accommodation for temporary memory loss.  I have become an expert at googling descriptions of people to identify their names or places I have visited.  It was easy to locate Stacey Abrams’ name by googling “Who was the Black woman who ran for governor of Georgia?”  To find the name of bell hooks, I googled “Who was the Black feminist writer at Berea College?”  Thank goodness I knew more about these women than their names.


The second occurrence was a couple of months later.  I woke up from an unplanned nap sitting on my sofa when I saw a strange man resting in a chair. I did not know where I was and did not recognize the man. I kept staring at the side of his face.  My mind was playing tricks on me.  I thought for a moment the stranger was my son.


I cried out, “JAY!!!.”


The television volume was too loud for the man to hear me.  I wondered how he had gotten into my condo.  As I observed the side of the man’s face, I realized he was not my son. The man’s skin was slack at the jawline.  He was too old to be Jay.


Panicked, I screamed as loud as I could, “NARISSA!!!”


I must have frightened my daughter because she burst through the door from her bedroom with dread in her voice. “What’s wrong?”


The moment I saw Narissa standing in the doorway, my surroundings became familiar, and I recognized the strange man as my 93-year-old first cousin, Sam, who was visiting me for the day.  He could not hear well and was unaffected by the commotion.


I have been coping with the impact of aging for nearly 20 years.   The first sign of deterioration in my joints occurred when I was sixty-five and experienced severe shoulder pain.  I was returning from a trip to Washington, D.C.  As I was placing my small carry-on luggage in the overhead storage on the American Airlines flight, my right shoulder locked, and as I tried to move it over my head, excruciating pain traveled down my arm.  I became embarrassed because I nearly dropped the luggage.  A nice-looking man in the row behind me saw my distress and rushed to place my bag in the overhead compartment. 


I thought about this unexpected pain on the flight back to Champaign, Illinois, where I served as President of Parkland College. My contract included an executive physical each year.  I had chosen the Mayo Clinic’s Executive Health Program in Rochester, Minnesota. During my next scheduled visit to Mayo Clinic I requested an examination of my shoulders.  The results indicated the early stages of arthritis in both shoulders. I dealt with this news as I have with every problem I’ve faced in my life—How do I fix it?  I began physical therapy to reduce the pain with moderate success.


After I retired from Parkland one year later, in 2006, the intensity of the pain in my shoulders increased exponentially.   I could no longer hit a golf ball, a sport I had begun to learn and love a few years earlier.  In some way, it reminded me of being a small child on our family farm.  I thought golf would be a good retirement sport.  I was disappointed that my shoulder pain prevented me from playing.  I had even attended a golf clinic and hired a patient coach.  I had not had time to play during the week or on weekends because of my work schedule. Golf takes up a lot of valuable time. I thought I would have time when I retired.  Now I had to let that vision go.  I knew I would have to make a new plan.


For me, and how I have lived my life, I knew my retirement would require planning, because retirement can be treacherous.  One man, a personal friend, hung himself after retirement.  Another woman, who had retired and attempted to go back to her previous position at the same college, drove into a semi-truck in what some of us who knew her suspected to be a suicide.  We can never know all the reasons that go into making this horrific choice.  We cannot know if retirement, or even if work played a part.


I only knew that after having an exciting and fulfilling career in educational leadership positions for nearly  40 years - 10 years as an administrator and nearly 30 as a  Community College President and Chancellor, working a minimum of 14 hour days and most weekends, and handling challenges large and small, I would need something to fill the void. 


Part 2 will be continued on Tuesday, February 27.

 

 

*bell hooks did not capitalize her name.  Google it.

10 Comments


staceyweb
Mar 30

I’m so glad you shared this with me especially the first volume (I’ve read all 3). I always tried to stay active in my youth so my body wouldn’t betray me when I got older but it did anyway with mobility problems—my dr says I wore it out!

You are an amazing lady….still teaching.

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Kathleen Oertle
Kathleen Oertle
Feb 21

I love and miss you. I am so glad you are writing again. I am grateful.

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Agud Writer
Agud Writer
Feb 20

Wow! Just wow! The more I read, the more I wanted to read. You definitely drew me in and kept my interest. I absolutely love your blogs. ❤️

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Thomas Thomas
Thomas Thomas
Feb 19

Z as you know you were always one of my idols. I have enjoyed the times we have spent together over the years and enjoy reading these stories about your wonderful life. Lynn and I are in Naples and enjoying our lives and the 61 years we have had together, made much more memorable because of people like you. As you know I passed that 83 mark myself and yes it is hard to see those body parts refuse to do what they once did. I still play golf but today a day after a day of Florida rain, it was cart path only and my scheduled game was cancelled. Look forward to the next part of your story…

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Zelema Harris
Zelema Harris
Feb 21
Replying to

Hey Thomas Thomas,

We were the cut ups in the Council. I had to stop sitting next to you. I have wonderful memories of you and Lynn. Continue to enjoy life. Our years of mobility before us are few. Let’s enjoy all of them!

Z

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erica collins
erica collins
Feb 19

Z,

I can't wait to read February 27th blog! Although, I must admit the lost for names and the need to look up information on Google are current themes for me...I'll A little scary! I love hearing stories about your life experiences! A short, but meaningful and intriguing read! Erica Collins

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