There are things in life too important for words and too fleeting for a pictures; they come and go, leaving us a little changed as they pass. It is for such things we have memories. They are like bright fragments of stained glass indexed by sight, smell, touch and - sometimes - an emotion. A memory may spring to life after years of quiet rest in some forgotten corner and pull a person into a spinning dance of happenings that are no longer a part of now after having been revived by the scent of lilac on the wind or the sound of rain tapping a lullaby on the roof.
I remembered something today from my sixteenth summer. That was a summer made of moments, and some of them remain very vivid. I think that summer, more than most others, changed my life by bending and stretching my perception to include things I had not yet had to think of.
Bert and his wife were an elderly couple that belonged to my family's small church and who were two very important menders, makers and benders of my growing years. Jane was born and raised in the South, as it once was, and truly made every decision based on an unwritten code of Southern nicety. She encouraged me to read poetry and to enjoy culture by bringing me books. I learned to sit with Jane by the hour and hear anecdotes about the folks who once sat around her daddy's well-appointed table chatting of this and that.
Bert was from the North, and a hardened Yankee if ever there was one. He was very tall and looked rather like a retired statesman with massive white eyebrows. Bert often brought my brothers and I old games and stories of ghost ships and mysteries at sea that were written in the day when politics were actually what one believed and a writer could say what he needed to say without fear of someone getting rankled and hauling him onto a nationally syndicated talk-show for a raking down. Bert could understand these writers, being absolutely free with his own opinions to anyone who stood still long enough to be victimized by them.
Bert had had a collapse the previous year that ended in a hospital with the diagnosis of a cancer too strong to struggle against. Bert was to be sent home on Hospice to die, and I, because I was almost family and free of any commitments, was to stay with them and see to things until the new arrangement became a little less strange.
I was to cook his meals the way he had eaten them for three-quarters of a century. I was to keep a log of his symptoms and deal with all of the eccentricities brought out by an aspect of his personality that would have been medicated, were he not already drugged. I was to change his outsized diapers when he had an accident caused by the progress of his cancer. I was to inform him when he pulled out needles and tubes for the fifth time in two days that I was running out nice places to put them, but that I had no objection to his being a stubborn mule if he had no objection to my getting creative with the needles. I was to take all sorts of guff from him when he got frustrated, and I was to put up with every prank he decided to pull. (With his experience that was one hell of a lot.) Here's a healthy "for instance:"
Bert, his wife and I went to the grocery store in that first week and took him in his wheel chair. I had no idea that this was such a hefty task for a green teenager and a sheltered old lady to cope with. Naturally, we didn’t, and he got away from us while we looked through coupons.
When I found him he had some poor, polyester-clad girl cornered in dairy goods, and, rolling his eyes, lolling his head, drooling and slurring loudly, was asking her in vaguely threatening tones if she was quite sure that the eggs were fresh. Having skipped a number of classes in school, the girl didn't have the vocabulary to deal with this kind of situation, so she stood there, back to the corner, eyes wide, shaking and producing small noises that only cats and dogs could hear.
As soon as Bert turned to see who was coming toward them, the girl shied and bolted as fast as her cork platforms could take her. I would guess that she trotted straight out of the building and home to lock her door and cower in a dark corner until pigs flutter over a peaceful Middle Eastern countryside. Bert wiped his chin, tucked his shirt in, and gleefully exclaimed, “Pretty good, huh?!” I wanted to haul off and smack the chump. Would have, too, if I hadn't been so totally disturbed.
This man had every reason to be cold, bitter and belligerent, but he wasn't. He must have been in a great deal of pain most of the time, but we rarely heard about it, somehow. He had a zest for life and a sense of humor that could turn any event into a stage for some raffish prank, and I was to realize he seldom missed an opportunity.
I was also to learn that summer that the effect of so many of life's circumstances depended upon the window a person happened to be peering through at a given moment. I realized my window was dull and very tiny, and that there was an enormous world full of fascinating details that I would never see if I was not willing to step outside and let them surround me. Living with that strange man who was so wonderfully alive and dying of cancer at the same time made me wonder if, after all, it wasn't that one person had a hard life and the next did not, but, perhaps, that the same life affected individuals differently because of what they brought to it. So I stood in the grocery store and laughed with that old man until tears came and everyone who passed put us down as a little less than sane.
That same night, after Jane had gone to bed, and as Bert and I were settling into the long wait for morning, he began to feel uncomfortable and decided he wanted to get up. Bert could not sit up in the hospital bed without a good bit of assistance, so I passed one arm behind his back and reached over to take his left hand in my right.
Looking down at that withered, age-spotted hand made me see, suddenly, and very clearly, that one day it might be I sitting in his place. I looked at his face, at the expression in his eyes, and for the first time I could easily see him as the boy who blew raspberries at black-and-white movies stars, the young officer his wife had been so taken with, and the quirky father his children remembered so fondly. I was surprised by his humanity. For the first time I looked at Bert and saw - not an old man - but a person, and that person amazed me.
(Originally published in the Bay City Times, 2005, SPM)