Sunday, September 20, 2009

What Do the Elderly Offer to Community?

These past two weeks have been so busy as I have been readjusting to teaching. My decreased activity as photojournalist for the BFG may be explained by my increased need to devote myself to my chemistry students. (Click here to see a little bit of what I have been doing.) This post has been one that I have wanted to write for a while, especially as our life has been so meaningfully touched by our newest addition, Maryella.

It was a year ago, this month, that Grandpa Farmer passed away after having lived in our home for the previous eleven months. For those eleven months my grandpa could not speak, he very infrequently opened his eyes, he received all of his nutrition through a feeding tube, he could not bathe or use facilities, and for that matter he really could not move at all.

We aimed to make his life as varied as possible - we took him to meeting with us, he daily sat beside us in his converted lawn recliner/wheel chair for meals and vespers. We so much longed for him to interact with us -we often showed him pictures (for the brief moments that he would open his eyes) of his wedding day as we tucked him in for the night, asking him again and again, "Who's that?" as we pointed to his wife. Once, maybe twice, we could hear him mutter something and if we listened hard enough we thought that we may be able to distinguish the syllables of "E-liz-a-beth." These moments of almost apparent lucidity were very rare and most of the time we could only guess what Grandpa needed to be comfortable.

In all of the moments of offering care to Grandpa, I remember distinctly asking myself again and again, "What meaning does life have in this state?" I remember feeling so certain that life was never without meaning, even when it looked like this, but I could never quite articulate why life's meaning never departed, even when every physical and mental faculty was shut-down.

When Grandpa died a year ago, I think I was first surprised by how much I genuinely missed his presence. Of course I already knew that I missed the gregarious and energetic Grandpa that I knew as a young girl, but I think I was most surprised how I missed the Grandpa that was weak, that didn't talk, that closed his eyes all day and didn't move. Again, I found it difficult to put words to this emotion.

Recently, though, I think I finally found words that have helped me to understand life's meaning, even when it seems like all purpose would be gone. Maryella taught me this lesson in an unusual way; its depth and profundity are now inescapable.

The other evening, as I was helping Maryella get ready for bed, she was sitting on the toilet and I was sitting directly across from her on the bathtub. I was wishing that everything could hurry up so we could move on. This, however, was when Maryella decided to teach me the profound lesson that I had been trying to learn for the past year. She put her elbow on her lap, bent her head down to rest it on her hand and, then, as if she had all the time in the world, said to me, "Now, tell me all of your dreams for your wedding one day."

A quick interruption in this story is necessary to explain that Maryella struggles greatly with short-term memory loss. It is hugely unlikely that any conversation that she has will be remembered unless great effort is taken to reinforce the nature of the conversation. Some people would say that this makes conversation meaningless, but I tend to think otherwise, so sitting on the edge of a bathtub, realizing that I am now settling in for a long conversation, I engage her prompt, "I am going to wear a white dress, and I am going to marry the dearest man in the whole world, and we're going to sing because we are so happy, and I am going to see all of my friends...and you, Maryella, are going to be there. Maryella, tell me about the dress you want to wear to my wedding one day."

And so the long conversation continues; she asks another question and then another. Finally, she lifts her head off her hand, looks at me and says, "Don't you think we better be going?" It was as if we had been sitting long into the evening, not in a bathroom, but in a tea parlor, and the last drop of coffee had long been sipped and darkness was setting in, calling her to bid good-night before returning to her cottage down the little dirt lane.

As we washed up and eventually headed down the hall (not the little dirt lane) to her bed (not her cottage) I realized that I had just been taught the lesson that I had long been waiting to learn: Knowledge will pass away, but love remains.

It is so easy, in an era of information and consumerism, to believe that knowledge and productivity are what define our human existence. Living in community with the elderly teaches you quickly that this is not so. Maryella woke up the next morning with no memory of our long conversation in the bathroom the night before. Knowledge passes away.

But love remains. That's the beautiful part of aging - love doesn't disappear. Maryella will gladly ask me the same question again the next night as we prepare for bed, and just as attentively listen to me tell her about the white dress and the dear man and the singing and the friends, because love remains, even when knowledge is completely gone.

And I realized, too, that this was also the case with Grandpa. He couldn't show me his love, he couldn't even ask me to dream about my "wedding one day," because he could not even speak. But he could let me love him, and in so doing my Grandpa entered into the eternal constancy of the universe.

The eternal constancy of the universe is not knowledge, it is not money, it is not productivity. Love alone is constant eternally. That is what the elderly teach the young. May we not despise their offering.