How often do I miss the magnificence of a moment?
My friend Susan is a retired Early Childhood Educator. Was she in the right profession? Here’s the best way I can answer: I do not want to be pouring out my heart to her and have a child, of any age, walk by. Susan responds to children as most adults would to a passing chest of gold sovereigns. She can become immersed in the magnificence of childhood faster than any of us could pluck a couple of choice coins from a pirate’s chest.
Susan volunteers at a Pre-School. On certain days, the children visit seniors at one of the local, 24-hour care residences. With each visit, at least one delightful story will be added to Susan’s repertoire. She caught me by surprise this past week, however. A cloud darkened her demeanor as she began telling me about the latest visit.
On the last Senior’s day, Susan was helping to guide the children to the appropriate area where they could meet and greet the elderly residents. The little clutch of children entered an area where a number of seniors sat. Susan told me, “I realized it was where the staff would bring those people who did not respond anymore. It bothered me.”
Susan shuffled her charges past the area quickly. She admitted to thinking how she wanted to be spared living in any parallel condition. She said emphatically, “I would rather be gone than have to live like that!”
The Pre-School teacher, Stephanie (not her real name), and Susan carried on with the visit, gathering new stories and making new memories. As they were leaving, they walked past the section of non-responsive residents. Stephanie stopped. She stood in front of a woman who sat with her hands on her lap and head bowed. Stephanie gently took the woman’s hands in both of hers, held them momentarily and said softly, “Good morning.”
The tenderness of the moment captivated Susan. Everything had stopped. Slowly, the resident began to lift her head. She turned her face as though acknowledging Stephanie. Quickly, Stephanie invited one of the children to come over and join the greeting. Once the child spoke to the senior, Stephanie gently replaced the woman’ s hands back on her lap. The covey of visitors left.
Susan described the scene with a mixture of awe and horror – awe over Stephanie’s incredible compassion and horror over her own seeming lack of compassion. “I had written off that whole section of people!” she said with obvious disappointment. “Even though the woman’s expression looked vacant, Stephanie continued to hold her hands and even invited a child to come forward!”
“Susan”, I said, “Don’t beat yourself up! I predict most people would share your response. It’s hard to face a possible and profoundly unacceptable future for ourselves. But there is a form of magnificence in those situations. When we think we see people whose bodies no longer let their souls shine through, we can look for their essence.”
“Essence?” Susan asked.
I told Susan about my mother. “I learned about inextinguishable essence from a little, East Indian Nurse’s Aide when Mom was still alive.” Four years following my mother’s stroke, she had been a permanent resident of a hospital where she needed 24 hour care. I was not certain my mother even knew who I was when I visited.
Before her stroke, my mother loved people. She was happiest while exploring life’s complexities with another human being. Communication fed her the vitality that she extended to others. The stroke took her voice, her ability to read, and her forms of expression that her body language used to provide.
On one of these visits with Mom, the soft-spoken Aide told me how much she loved my mother. “How do you know that?” I demanded “How CAN you know that?”
The aide looked surprised at my reaction. She said simply, “Because your mother certainly has NOT lost her essence,” and left.
“Susan, that was gift. There’s all this invisible stuff going on that we can learn about or ignore. I had to find it or miss out on a huge chunk of life”
It’s not easy. It takes time. It means stopping the clatter and chatter of life long enough to hear, feel, and sense essence. Today I know it is there and it does communicate love.
I told Susan what I have come to believe. “No matter the state of our physical condition, our souls are just as vital in old age as the day the spark of life (the God spark) ignites us into earthly existence. Our essence is the perfume of our souls.”
To me, that elderly woman raised her face in response to the essence of Stephanie’s soul. Likewise, my soul responded to the essence of Susan’s soulful disappointment in herself.
I walked away from our conversation with love, respect and gratitude. Can friendship get any better than that?