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.