Poker and the Art of Aging

Source: FORTEPAN/wikimediacommons

At the poker game, sometimes I’m a fly on the wall, sometimes I’m one of the boys.  I play every Wednesday afternoon with five older men; the weekly game is both a pleasure and an education

This week at the game, as we celebrate one man’s 76th birthday with a poem and a song, we also make plans to celebrate the youngest man’s 70th next week, when one of the guys will create homemade pasta carbonara. One or all of us may die from clotted arteries—some sooner, some presumably later–but we agree that Marco’s pasta is worth the risk.

When I’m a fly on the wall, I learn about the many medical appointments in the older men’s lives.  Ed, who is 88, has some balance problems, and recently finished cardiac rehab and a class on balance. The weekly poker game is a highlight for him, as it is for us all, but I think particularly for him as an opportunity to get out with a group of his peers, use his brain, and shoot the breeze–social life, in other words.

One of us picks him up unless he’s hosting, and the car ride to the game is often filled with the American Songbook (he still has a beautiful voice), and stories about famous people he “made eye contact with” when he lived in New York and frequented nightclubs and popular restaurants. His self-image and confidence are strong, and if there is some latent loss and grief, he keeps them to himself; only the brief spurt of irritation when someone is too solicitous, or seeks to do too much to help him–a common phenomenon when youth attempts to assist age–indicates that Ed minds his current state.  None of the guys shows sadness or fear about getting older.  They’re too busy trying to finesse the poker hand. 

Transportation is sometimes a challenge.  Ed and Jack don’t drive because they have low vision.  Ellen, the other woman who occasionally plays with us, can’t drive either.  If all 7 of us are playing, one is hosting, three are driving, and three are being transported.  It works, though we live in different parts of our rural county.  The poker players are committed to keeping everybody in the game; I think we know that all of us will need help at some point—eyes, bones, hearts—and oh, yes, prostates–become human vulnerabilities with age.

1548444521_383_Poker-and-the-Art-of-Aging Poker and the Art of Aging

Source: National Library of Medicine (Daumier)/wikimediacommons

Oh, and ears too.  Soon after Jack, the youngster who is turning 70, joined the group, he proposed that he and Ed sit side-by-side at the table, so the jumbo cards we use could be close to them and thereby more visible.  “You know,” he says when he suggests it, “we’re the blind side of the table.” 

I catch my breath. There is a moment of shocked anxiety.  Then Larry, the “captain” of the group, says, “Well, maybe I’d better sit on Ed’s other side since he and I wear hearing aids.” 

An audible exhalation of relief, and everyone cracks up.  Larry has had to be persuaded to wear his hearing aids at the game, and then prompted to bring fresh batteries so we don’t hear the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth over and over again as a hearing aid battery dies—and also so he can hear the banter and the bets.  Now, asking Larry to turn up his hearing aids, and making sure that Jack and Ed have the cards close enough to them, is standard at every game.  Like the transportation, support for other physical impairments are treated with care and concern; they also have become sources of humor within the safety of the group. The topic of dementia remains off-limits,  as does urinary incontinence, but erectile dysfunction has been treated with warm humor a couple of times when I’ve been a fly on the wall.

Larry had a UHR recently, an Umbilical Hernia Removal.  He is himself funny, and laughs easily when he is teased.  He also feeds my cats when I’m away, which is relevant in that he and I have a conversation prior to the surgery, using humor as a coping strategy.  I am worried about him having general anesthesia at age 82; he is determined to have the surgery and doesn’t want to hear about other people’s anxiety.  Rather than say, truthfully, “I’m really scared that you might have some cognitive loss with the surgery,” I project my concern onto the cats, who love the man who feeds them when I have gone missing for a few days. 

“Cleo and Annie don’t understand what a hernia is,” I tell him.  “I told them you were having a Henrietta removed.” 

Larry laughs. 

I go on: “So Cleo asked, ‘What’s a Henrietta?’” 

Larry nods, waiting for my punchline. 

“I told them it was an intestinal worm.” 

He looks horrified. 

“Well, they could understand that.  They don’t like having worms, and are glad they don’t get them anymore now that they are indoor cats who don’t eat birds and mice.” 

His horror is replaced by laughter

1548444521_427_Poker-and-the-Art-of-Aging Poker and the Art of Aging

Source: U.S. Navy [public domain]/wikimediacommons

“It’s reassuring to them, Larry.  Having Henrietta removed is a normal procedure for them.”  And, I think to myself, something that you and I can laugh about because we have named it in a funny way.

We refer to the procedure as a Henrietta at the next poker game, and the guys all laugh.  Two days before the surgery, the poker gang sends Larry emails wishing him a successful surgery and good health. Jack gets the last word: “Say goodbye to Henrietta for me!”  I laugh when I read it, after Larry has gone under the knife.  And when his wife tells me that the surgery was a success, I silently say, “Bye, bye, Henrietta!”  Two days later, Larry’s playing poker, and winning, to boot–talk about resilience

This past week, the poem and song about Marco’s birthday are well-received by the guys.  The song is slightly vulgar—I get to be a fly on the wall, and rejoice that they laugh at all the right places in the parody I have written and Larry sings. They sing along in the parodic chorus, and later in the game recite rhymes from boyhood, ones that were not a part of my female cohort’s rhymes in third grade.  Clearly boys and girls are indoctrinated differently very early, on the playground.

After the clever, off-color rhymes, the conversation shifts to movies, as it often does—and Marco and Jack quote long stretches of The Godfather, as usual, before moving on to Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate.  The conversation was typical for the group. 

Ed says, “Laurence Harvey played the guy who had come back from Korea.”  Ed was in Korea, and frequently shares things about Korean War history.

We’re in the midst of a hand, and Larry and Dan are focusing on their bets, but once they have put their coins in, they tune in.  They haven’t heard Ed.  Dan says, “Wasn’t Laurence Harvey in that?” 

Ed: “I just said that.” 

“What’s-her-name played his mother,” Dan continues. 

Everyone says, in unison, “Angela Lansbury.” 

“Who played the Queen of Hearts?” 

Jack corrects: “It was the Queen of Diamonds,” and we all stop and replay that eerie, surreal scene in our minds. No one can name the actress, whom I later google and find is Leslie Parrish.

The game continues.  As we play the last hand, I am struck by how we all recall that arty scene across the decades.  Vintage.  Classic.  Beloved. So evocative of the political issues in the year I was born.  A reminder of our history, and how it resonates through the years. 

Just like the guys in the poker game. 

1548444521_193_Poker-and-the-Art-of-Aging Poker and the Art of Aging

Source: United Artists/wikimediacommons

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