Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things… – Naomi Shihab Nye
An elderly man stood inside the door of the library. He took a wobbly step toward me, nodded, smiled, and said something in a raspy voice I couldn’t hear.
He’d been tall once, but was stooped, rounded, and frail with wispy white hair and loose khaki pants bunched at the waist. His hands were large knuckled and scarred. A farmer’s hands. His pale blue eyes were kind, and something else. Desperate or needy?
A librarian hurried over. “Welcome,” she said. “Come downstairs. I have a pot of coffee on.” I had come to give a reading.
I followed her down the narrow steps. The gentleman came behind and took a seat in the front row. He smiled with expectant eyes, the picture of sweet patience. I greeted people as they arrived. The old man kept his eyes on me.
After the group settled, I read from my book and told stories about my husband Vic’s death and my efforts to create a meaningful life without him. [I read a passage that included Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness.”
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth…]
I invited people to share experiences about times when they were scared or felt hopeless and someone reached out with love. The old man was silent. Others spoke in the quiet voices we use when talking about losing a person or our health or our dreams. I struggled to hear their words.
“I’m quite deaf,” I said, “so please speak up. I know it’s natural to discuss grief in a hushed voice, but I want to hear you.” Just as I don’t pretend I’m not grieving for my husband, I don’t pretend to hear when I can’t.
The elderly gentleman coughed. A choking, grabbing cough that wouldn’t let go. He pulled a wadded white handkerchief out of his front pocket and covered his mouth. He motioned for us to go on and moved to the back row.
When we fall, and we all will fall, we can go on if we lean into each other. May we all keep leaning into love.
“Anyone have a cough drop?” I asked. A widow handed him a cough drop after loosening the wrapper.
I brought the reading to a close with the last words of my book: “When we fall, and we all will fall, we can go on if we lean into each other. May we all keep leaning into love.”
Tears pooled in my eyes. A few people openly wept.
“Would anyone like to say something before we leave?” I asked.
The elderly man looked up, raised a shaky finger, and spoke. His quiet words trailed off into space. “Sixty-five years… Diabetes… A year ago… Nursing home.”
His eyes were wet and his lips quivered. I wanted to hear his words, but couldn’t. I asked him to repeat them. I leaned down toward him, but couldn’t read his trembling lips.
“Will someone help us?” I asked. “Pretend that I don’t know the language. This is the way deafness can be. I recognize a few words and miss the meaning, so I need a translator.”
“I’ll help,” a woman said.
“Please begin again,” I asked the gentleman.
You gave your wife the ultimate gift of love.
I sat knee-to-knee with him. My eyes were locked on his. He watched me as he spoke. Everyone leaned forward to listen. After each sentence, the woman repeated his words. He nodded and watched as I looked up to read her lips and hear her clear voice.
“My wife died a year ago,” she translated. “We were married sixty-six years. She had diabetes, but the best thing is I took care of her. I was able to take care of her. She didn’t have to go to a nursing home.”
I looked into his eyes. He smiled.
“You must be lonely after all those years together,” I said.
“Yes, but I’m grateful she died at home. My family was grateful, too,” he said. “It was the best thing I could give her.”
“There is a writer named Stephen Levine,” I told him. “Levine says if we love our partner deeply we want them to die first so we can help them across to the other side.” The man nodded yes. Tears rolled down the deep furrows of his cheeks.
“You gave your wife the ultimate gift of love,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “I’m so glad I could do it. That’s the important thing. I took care of her.”
There we were, human and naked in our sorrow, our frailty and deafness, old age and loneliness. There we were, swimming in love, gratitude and grace.
We invite you to share a story about yourself or another person, reflecting on the question: “How has gratefulness shifted a moment, an experience, or a lifetime?”
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So beautiful story, thanks for sharing.
In most part of the time, I notice people looking for distractions in order to don’t think about death. But it is necessary think about it, because this reflection help us to be present in our own life.
My best wishes, fraternal hug. Cintia
Thank you, Cintia. I’ve learned a lot by looking closely at death (my husband and my parents) and also from hospice bereavement work. Being aware of mortality helps me remember what matters. Thanks so much for the hug and kindness. A virtual hug to you, Elaine
I am grateful to my late frend Tom for introducing me to his friend God and to my late husband love
Those are two huge gifts, Gina. I’m glad you received them because both give comfort and help us live well when people who are dear to us have died. Before his death, my husband said to me, “If you love yourself just half as much as I love you, you’ll be all right.” I’ve been saying those words to myself for nearly eight years. Thanks so much for your comment.
Thank you Elaine for your words about a time we often think that all is lost.
Often the world thinks life has a value when we are busy, we do, we work, we run….
Your words give another reason.
Beautiful reflections, Anna. Of course, I need the lessons as much as anyone, which is why I was so deeply impressed by this gentleman and his desire to tell his love story. One of the few good things about my husband’s illness and my deep grief after his death was the need for endless doing stopped for a while.
What a beautiful connection you made with this gentle soul. A true gift to both of you. Thank you for sharing the experience here, Elaine, and thank you for the generous, compassionate work you do to help us through our grief.
It was beautiful for both of us and everyone in the room, Ann. We were all dabbing at our wet eyes. He had lost so much, but wasn’t focused on that. He was only nterested in what he’d been able to give for love. thanks for taking time to comment.
Thank you for sharing this very tender encounter. I appreciate this reminder that even in the midst of great heartbreak and loss it is possible to be grateful for our ability to ease the suffering of those we love. A deep bow and thanks to you, Elaine.
Thank you for your response, Saoirse. The tender heart-open feelings in this elderly man brought out equally tender feelings in everyone there. I expected him to express his sorrow and loneliness, but that’s not what he wanted to share and he wouldn’t let anything stop him–not his cough or my deafness.. He had so much to teach everyone in the room (hospice volunteers, people from the cancer center in Ithaca, and other grievers). The small library basement became a sacred space. A Network for Grateful Living is the perfect place for this piece.