Monday, December 8, 2014
Jumping Clocks and Calendars
A student wrote this piece in response to the Compassion prompt I gave a couple of weeks ago.
I am particularly struck, as a memoir piece, by the presence of both specific/personal and then universal themes. Because of the Baby Boomers, there are so many folks dealing with their parents in situations like these, and knowing that they, too, may be in these places one day themselves. This student really shows their ability to slow down and be in the situation, which is, after all, the truest expression of compassion one can get.
A couple of my favorite lines: "The avant garde of the avant garde," "I look directly at things, at the faces of people, that I wouldn’t have looked directly at before," and "I try to imagine this fuzzy-edged world where it’s so hard to get moving, where clocks and calendars seem to jump around unable to hold their hours or weeks in place." These strike me the most because they show the raw edge of compassion and also really deliver us into this place - showing us their compassion in really being present in the situation.
More folks need to be writing about this, publishing this. I hope that increases with time. Roz Chast's amazing graphic novel memoir Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant didn't win the award so many of us hoped it would. But perhaps, one day, memoir that so many in this generation really need to be reading will be more broadly offered.
There’s a man I often see when I enter the the assisted living facility where my mother-in-law lives. I don’t know his name, but I always say “Hello” or “Good afternoon” to him when I pass by where he’s seated near the entrance to the dining room. He’s the avant garde of the avant garde -- the first of the small coterie of men and the occasional woman who start gathering at the door of the dining room at 4:00, or even 3:45, in preparation for dinner being served at 4:30. That’s a pretty early dinner, but these guys like to get there even earlier, so they can chat, or I guess just sit somewhere other than in their rooms or the hallways, get a change of scene.
This particular man is relatively new here -- four months, maybe? When I say hi, he responds “Hello” in a deep voice, not a muscle moving in his face, his eyes may flick upward to meet mine or they may not. To all appearances, he’s sitting there like a rock, unfeeling, begrudging in his attention to passers by. But I’m unwilling to believe these outer appearances, for I know that sometimes people who look dead on the outside can be quite alive on the inside. They may be unable, for a physical reason or an emotional one, to show their aliveness, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
So, I will continue to greet this man -- maybe I’ll even try to learn his name, though pronouncing that in greeting seems like too big a step to take just yet, and I will continue to assume that he’s not gruff, he’s not emotionless or uncaring of the presence of others. Maybe he’s just stuck, maybe he’s just stiff -- things that once smiled easily are now arthritic, in whatever sense of the word applies here. Or maybe he’s really just an old grouch, always has been -- in that case my greetings may fall on deaf ears but they don’t hurt anything.
It occurs to me I’ve learned a lot about compassion by visiting my mother-in-law’s living place over these past three and a half years. I look directly at things, at the faces of people, that I wouldn’t have looked directly at before. I’ve found that it’s okay to look into the face of Sylvia’s neighbor Bev, who was active and relatively alert when she moved to assisted living from independent living about a year ago. But Bev has gone downhill fast. We used to have conversations when we’d meet in the hall, short ones, it’s true, but there was content there. Now, I’ll say “Hi, Bev” when I meet her sitting in one of those chairs by the elevators -- a nowhere place to sit -- and she’ll look up a little surprised and say “Hi” back, but I can read in her face that she has no idea who I am.
Then there was the time I caught Ben wandering out the front door and heading up the street. Ben lives upstairs in the memory care unit. Ben’s a nice guy, a talker, usually needs his nose wiped, and I know he’s not supposed to be outside on his own.
So I double back and catch up with him and say “Hi, Ben, out for a walk?” And he stops and smiles and responds, “I’m waiting for my wife!” And I look up the street and, indeed, there comes Elaine down the walk, who still lives in independent living but comes over to assisted living to eat lunch or dinner with her husband. So, there was no emergency after all, I guess, but it was probably good that I checked.
I think one of the most compassionate things one can do is slow down when you’re with a very old person, or a person who’s very old in some way. Just slow down and move at their speed. You can even kneel, or sit, at their level so you’re not always looking down on them. And a little touch is good, a pat on the shoulder, a taking of a hand, though to be honest sometimes they don’t want to let go of your hand once they get it.
So, I look at people I didn’t used to look at. And I watch my own mother-in-law navigate her confusion. I try to imagine her perceptual world -- a cone of vision that’s all scrambled on the left side, sounds that are often garbled or too soft to understand as language, legs that won’t do what the brain tells them to, bladder and various pipes that seem to have minds of their own, dreams or delusions of dead cats wrapped in paper on her table.
She announced the other day in the dining room to all assembled that there was one there, too. I try to imagine this fuzzy-edged world where it’s so hard to get moving, where clocks and calendars seem to jump around unable to hold their hours or weeks in place. Where meals fade into each other. Where you announce you want to move to another country, a country called Heaven.
It’s really hard to look at her, to just be with her sometimes, when she’s anxious and grouchy. But then it’s so sweet when I bring her a CD I’ve burned for her and we sit there tapping our feet to Bing Crosby singing McNamara’s Band or Perry Como warbling about love. But you have to look at it all, you have to look at all the hard stuff to really get the sweet stuff.