“…when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments?
I said not yet but I intend to start today.” (Raymond Carver)
I have always especially treasured the perspective of my friends who are older. Often I learn simply from how they are and what they do. I discovered that my friend Joe used to print quotes from his wife’s favorite poets and authors to hang on a peg over the washing machine for her to read and savor, transforming this most ordinary chore.
The most important lessons are completely unexpected. Here’s a story of a recent one:
It is an inviting and comfortable house in a pleasant neighborhood close to a beautiful park. Cheerful boxes of flowers line the steps to the front door. Once inside a quick glance reveals evidence of a cultured lifestyle – the many books, art, dvds and cds bear witness to a deep and long-standing involvement in the arts. The artifacts collected from foreign countries indicate well-educated and well-traveled owners. It is the home of an elderly couple, sadly each with a brain now mercilessly eroded by disease.
In one room, the old man sits at a table, head down, lost in his own reality. When he speaks, it is in great sorrow about the past and of a life of regret. He declares that he has never been loved. His son, who had traveled thousands of miles from his young family to stay with his ailing parents, carefully prepares each meal and lovingly ensures that it is his father’s favorite food.
Friends of many years come to visit several times a day. Each sits with him, holds his hands and reminisces about the many happy times over the years. We fondly describe the many celebrations and visits and travels and shared meals. Central to our memories is a devoted husband and a vibrantly affectionate wife. Theirs is a great love story, which we have all witnessed over the decades and that continues to inspire us, their friends, through time and into the present. The feeling of love in their house is palpable. We each tell the old man that we love him, but he denies it to our faces. All the old man can recall is an ancient hurt, a rejection that has erased 60 years of life well-lived.
At each arrival of friends, she rouses herself and blesses each one of us with her characteristic smile. She murmurs in gratitude at the flowers she receives and when her son feeds her – she says clearly “I am so lucky!”
The old man and woman have shared a life in the same house for more than 60 years. They traveled together, went to plays and opera, art museums, sat and read from their extensive library in their comfortable house. They received the same friends and loving attention from their only child. We joked how his view of life’s cup being half-empty was more than compensated by her conviction that the cup overflows.
How is it that their last days are spent so differently? He, crying and feeling unloved, and she, smiling and feeling so very blessed. Although, much needs to be attributed to the kind of disease they each suffer, it is worth “stop(ping) and ask(ing) for understanding” and reflecting on how we choose to be.
Do we have a choice? If we each live a life of gratitude and appreciation, do we lay down so many neural pathways that they remain operating right up to the end? If we make the intention now, not knowing how long we have, will it bear similar fruit?
I think it is worth trying because, regardless of the end goal, the process – living – is much more enjoyable.
What important questions to ask. What important lessons to learn.
(in gratitude photos and art by M. Kellen-Taylor)