Two years ago when I learned that I was going to be a grandfather, I pictured myself as a new kind of grandpa. Not the old infirm kind with a cane, but one that would scale mountains with my grandkids. A proud defyer of age. When Henry was born, I reveled in the comments of friends who could not believe Nancy and I were actually grandparents at the relatively young age of 56. In strolls through Central Park, strangers complemented us on our baby.
My hale and robust grandfatherhood was sweet while it lasted. In April of 2016, during a particularly stressful period at work, my illusion of invincibility was visited by a pain in my lower back, followed by a dull, persistent pain in my left testicle. I ignored it for about a week. But on vacation with the family in Vermont, while Henry ran around playing with his toys, I lay on the couch – exhausted – the pain in my ball increasing. My mental switch was similar to what people go through when they are renovating their kitchens and start to think about cabinet handles. When you’re shopping for cabinet handles you can’t stop thinking about them; you see them everywhere you look – in other people’s kitchens, or even in Quentin Tarrantino movies.
And so it was with my left ball.
My left ball grew in my mind’s eye to the size of a dirigible. It floated, massive, hideous, bloated, above the couch. My left ball filled my dreams, a Salvador Dali painting of my ball dominating a barren landscape.
And joining my ball was a morphing of my back ache, a sensation like a million tiny fingers arcing up from my lower back and tingling every nerve right up to my brain. I had a constant urge to run, screaming, out of my own body.
My right ball was like a twin brother unaffected by it all, staring at his sibling ball with an expression of, “What’s your problem?”
In the past, whenever I experienced minor physical trouble, my instinct has always been to walk it off. I went down that path again with my left ball in tow, trudging through the woods of New Hampshire with friends, in the rain, determined to hike myself back to health. But my ball became my ball and chain. It seemed to lag behind and drag through the mud and stones. That night my ball stayed awake like an evil pet constantly demanding attention, scratching at the door of my mind.
My doctor diagnosed me with Epidymitis. An inflammation of the cord that carries sperm from the testicle to the seminary duct. He put me on an intense antibiotic, glibly informing me at the end of the visit that the drug could in some cases cause retinal detachment, or permanent damage to ligaments. My left ball only laughed at the drug, hiding behind its castle wall of veiny flesh and taunting me in French. After a testicular ultrasound that turned up nothing unusual, a second doctor put me on a second course of intense antibiotics. Within 9 days, while my ball still ached, my mouth and tongue turned white and felt like animals had crawled in and died there. This was apparently a condition called thrush. At the same time, my intestines became bloated and painful. All the beneficial bacteria in my body was being slaughtered in Game of Thrones fashion, leaving my ball untouched at the Red Redding.
I dragged my body, ball in tow, to one of the top urologists in Boston. At this point, six weeks into hell, the simple act of walking felt like both balls where church bells clanging between my thighs. Hot weather was setting in, making my balls pendulous, throbbing, and huge. I was bowlegged as I walked into the doctor’s office. He’d seen this many times before. He said it was likely chronic but it would nevertheless go away in time, probably. His blithe name for it was arthritis of the ball.
Like the old man in Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, I felt compelled to tell my ball tale of woe to everyone; I “stopethed one of three” – even people I didn’t know very well – to tell them all about my left ball. After a few seconds, I could see the looks in their eyes change from passing, sympathetic interest to a desire to slowly back away. Why, they thought with growing horror, was Ted telling me all this? What’s wrong with Ted?
Well, what was wrong with Ted was that he could not believe what was happening to him.
I could not reconcile my own self-image of hearty mid-life grandpa with the bowlegged, ball-dangling grandpa I had suddenly become. And when I looked around me, I realized that a lot of older men walk funny. I wondered, are their balls being clanged like church bells by the Quasimodo of aging? Do they also have ball arthritis? Groucho Marx once said that he would never want to be accepted into a club that would have him as a member. I don’t want to join the society of infirm grandfathers. But it turns out I may not be in charge, and no earthly living thing is, in the end.
Within the past six weeks, a Chinese doctor half my size – Dr. Lu – has jumped on my lower back like it was a trampoline, and inserted tiny throbbing needles, convinced that a nerve in my back that’s connected to my ball has somehow been damaged. The treatment has helped somewhat, but I’m still deep in the woods, and anxious that the damage – whatever it is – may be permanent.
Today, I was supposed to be in Connecticut helping my daughter paint the room for the new grandson due in September, but I didn’t feel up to sitting in a car for three hours and the resulting pain, followed by a day of painting. I do better laying down.
I think that ultimately I will be cured, either by Dr. Lu, Western medicine, or just by time. Time really is the best healer. And time is what led me, after 56 years, to the pure joy of grandfatherhood. So I must embrace time and the challenges of aging equally, for nothing is ever purely bad, and grace can be found in the most unlikely places. Including my left ball.