I continue to be grateful to Jon Katz for opening up the question of how much to indulge in old talk, to which I add sick talk because illness is often intertwined with getting older.
Jon, a good friend, didn’t care much for my asking him about his health and wrote that he’s leery of old talk, that it shows people identifying him according to his age and health rather than with the fantastic things he’s doing, like writing books, a popular blog, his support of young immigrants, his devotion and care for the residents of an assisted living residence near where he lives, not to mention sustaining a good marriage and a farm.
On Monday I wrote that I don’t think we get enough old and sick talk. I think we fight tooth and nail against hearing that stuff, and when we’re stuck sitting near someone who talks about what ails him/her we nod politely and turn a deaf ear.
After Bernie had his stroke a whole new vista of illness and old age opened up for me. Like most people, I thought I knew about all that, but now it was as if another eye had opened, and something I thought I’d seen before now appeared much more meaningful and consequential. It was Bernie’s gift to me.
“How are you feeling?” I’d ask him.
“Okay,” was all he said.
“Okay okay,” he’d say.
He didn’t like to talk about aches and pains, he didn’t like to talk about tough nights. Tell me, I’d plead with him, tell me. Because I really wanted to know. Because when you can share with someone what is actually going on without hiding or complaining, you are revealing yourself, your vulnerabilities, your doubts and struggles, and I see that as a big gift. Moonlight glimmering through shadow.
The world of the sick and old is actually a very quiet one. People are afraid to talk because nobody wants to hear about it. I’ve had friends with serious chronic illnesses that caused severe pain and weakness. They had to stop working, ran out of money, and sometimes lost their marriages. Whom did they tell?
Someone recently said to me, “I tell the people on my message forum who suffer from the same thing I have, but most of what I experience I don’t post on my regular Facebook page. People don’t want to know. I’ve lost many friends since getting sick, and I’ve had to grieve over that in addition to grieving over my illness.”
I like to listen to folks describe the challenges they deal with as they get older or sick. Not just open to it, really interested. Why? Because they’re telling me how to live. Illness and old age are ahead for almost all of us. Don’t you want to know how to do it? Who are you going to learn this from, a healthy 25 year-old?
When I listen to old or sick people, whether they know it or not, that’s the question they’re answering: How do you do it? How do you live through this? How do you live when first thing you feel in the mornings is pain in your joints? When you have to get up and stand slowly because of blood pressure problems, or because you had a stroke and can’t feel the floor under your feet? Watching Bernie walk knowing that he couldn’t feel the floor under his right foot, couldn’t feel resistance, was mind-boggling for me.
Yes, some will talk in great detail about ailments, but if you listen closely enough, you’ll start getting the answer you are waiting for: This is how I do it. Maybe the answer has to do with their meditation practice, maybe it’s because they believe in God or a higher power, maybe it’s because they see it as part of the package. Maybe, like my father, all they can say is: “I don’t like to complain.”
Bernie gave the same answer: “What’s the good of complaining?” How I wish I could have succeeded in communicating to both men that I never heard it as complaining. I heard it as answers to the question, how do you do it?
Lots of Zen books talk about life and death; lots of teachings admonish you to prepare. But where is the wisdom by example? What vulnerabilities are we afraid of when we eschew old talk and sick talk? What fragility? What intimacy?
Jean Vanier died about a week ago. If you don’t know who he is, look him up. He turned his back on an upper-class, educated, well-to-do background in order to form L’Arche, a community where healthy people lived alongside and supported folks with developmental disabilities, a community that became a worldwide network. I never met him but devoured his books.
Vanier was clear that he received way more than he gave, that he learned what it is to be human from people with illness and disability, what it is to love and be loved unconditionally, and finally, what it is to touch and be touched by the very marrow of life, the one true note we sometimes call God. The theologian Henri Nouwen, who taught at Yale and Harvard Divinity Schools, spent his last decade, from his mid-50s to mid-60s, in a L’Arche community. For Nouwen, you couldn’t talk about what it is to be human without touching your deepest fear, and what greater fear do we have than that of incapacity and death?
For me, there’s nothing like the bright, bubbly, burpy laugh of a baby. Why else do we gesticulate like fools if not to hear that laugh again and again? But there’s something indescribable, too, about that special amalgam of laughter and tears that is life’s great gift to us many years later.
“Oh God!” I exclaimed one night after running upstairs and contemplating Bernie on the floor after he fell.
He looked up at me from the floor and said, “You know what’s another name for God? Go figure.”
And I feel bad for all the stakwart people who feel that bearing witness is complaining, that there is shame involved in feeling the constraints of your body and spirit and therefore do what everybody does who is shamed, keep quiet, disappear for a while, pretend nothing is happening..