“Do not regret growing older; it is a privilege denied to many.” ~ Anonymous
This week it so happens that I was presented with stories, stories from the elders. My father used to collect stories. On one occasion he was visiting the sick bed of Mr. Baker, a retired policeman in Chapelton. Mr. Baker was quite old and nearing death. But he was still able to tell some good tales of the old days, and my father was ready with his pen and pad, to jot down some noteworthy turn of phrase, or some little joke. The next day he went back to visit and Mr. Baker told him that the end was near, but he was ok with this, because he had seen God and talked with Him. And as he talked with Him, He was writing everything down ‘in His little book’!
Our elders have many stories for us, if we only listen. Sometimes it is not in the words they speak today, but in the long ago words that come back to us as we age. It may be a situation with our own kids, and we hear ourselves repeating those same phrases that drove us crazy when we were young. Or, it might be as it was for my friend who found himself nursing his aging father after pacemaker insertion. As he cared for his fragile parent, he recalled the days when as a child he would disobey direct orders to run to the river to play with his friends. And the severe and painful message that would be awaiting him when he tried to sneak back into the house. Ah that old-fashioned Jamaican discipline, that was not afraid of phone calls to DCF! A tradition of not sparing the rod.
This week I was honored to listen to a daughter pay tribute to her failing mother. A woman, the youngest of 12 children, who had emigrated from Ireland, married a man from Georgia, and raised her children to take in those in need, and feed the hungry. In giving the daughter my attention, I allowed her to see her mother as the vibrant ballroom dancer she once had been; the one whose laughter had filled their house; a woman who was still baking treats for her caregivers in the ALF before she fell and broke her hip. A woman whose memories will live even after she passes on.
Do we respect our elders enough? Do we get to know their stories, understand the struggles they had, the battles they fought? We do not always have to turn to Oprah for insight, or get our self-help advice from the latest top-selling author. Sometimes all we have to do is replay their words in our head, recall that unsolicited advice that may have driven us crazy years ago, but now begins to make sense. It is the folly of youth to think they know it all. It takes age to find wisdom, and the mistakes we have made to let us know the truth.
Another story that was given to me this week was of the grandmother of a co-worker. She had passed out in the garden, and was in the hospital for tests. After she came around, she would not let her family call 911. In fact, when she did agree to go to the hospital, she insisted on changing her clothes, fixing her hair to look her best before she went! They can still teach us a thing or two about dignity and style!
There was a story this week about an NPR contributor Scott Simon, who tweeted what he called his mother’s ‘Last Great Performance’ as she lay in the ICU fighting her last fight. This he did as a tribute to her, and her great insights. One of the funnier comments was when she told him that most deathbed speeches were probably written ahead! But if we are fortunate to have our parents for many decades, we will experience the bittersweet experience of watching them fade away, wishing they would stay, yet knowing they need to go.
With healthcare today, we have come to expect that death is optional, that no matter what you have done to your bodies in the past, modern medicine will be able to turn it around, to keep you going. And sometimes it can. And sometimes, in patching things back together, you get some more years. But don’t mistake quantity for quality. For most of all our elders miss their independence. It is not easy to acknowledge that you cannot take care of yourself, that you need others to do for you. So for the family, it takes great strength but can be the greatest gift of all, to permit a loved one to give up the fight. In this country we ask family members (in the absence of a Living Will – which by the way, everyone should have, whether you are young and healthy or not) if they want ‘everything done’. But the kinder phrase which is coming into fashion is: ‘Allow Natural Death’. Too often we request that everything be done, not recognizing that it is unnatural to stick tubes down the fragile throats of our octogenarians. It is cruel to pounce upon a delicate sternum. Sometimes it is far more loving to let go, and allow a natural death. In today’s technological and results oriented world, that may be hard to do. But trust me, it may be the most humane thing you can do.
So this week I encourage you to cherish your elders, share their stories, keep them alive in tales and wise sayings for their grandchildren to learn. And if there is someone you need to talk to about a Living Will, start the conversation while they are healthy. You can go to http://www.agingwithdignity.org/five-wishes.php or visit http://theconversationproject.org/about/ellen-goodman/
Have a great Friday, family! And I hope these words have made you remember a special person with a smile as you recalled something they said or did that touched you, that helped to make you a better person.