When we moved the family to the opposite corner of the country to start a new life, one of the changes for me was to work with folks on the opposite end of the life spectrum. Instead of preschool to middle school aged children every day, I now spend my time with people who are decidedly more elderly. Instead of trying to give individuals tools that they’ve never had, I endeavor to help them recover ones that they have lost, or, at the very least, make the best of what abilities they have left. Although these things are loosely related in that they involve communication and the brain, there are stark contrasts in my personal daily experiences. Specifically, this is a result of the clients themselves.
My world view is being inexorably altered as I encounter wisdom that can only be acquired through decades of trial and error. More than ever, I can see the outgrowth of decisions made long ago, and the impact governing life principles had on those decisions as well as the patterns that persisted. Put more simply, I see the sum result, that is the endgame of how people have chosen to live their lives. --And it can be very sobering.
On the one hand, there are married couples who have been married for 60 to 70 plus years, who take the latest challenges or inevitable realities in stride with something approaching gracefulness; who have children and grandchildren rallying around them in their time of need. Even if one of these is now far from their prime and suffering from advancing dementia, I can see flickers of who they once were, bolstered by the manner with which their family members relate both to them and to each other. If I ask these types of individuals how they cope with challenges, they meet the other’s gaze with a knowing look, then respond with something akin to, “Well, we just work it out. There is always a way.” With every situation, even when there is no longer a way, collective support abounds.
On the other hand, there have been many whose situations were far from the one described above. The person is alone, either because he or she did not wish to be tied down by such encumberances as a family and thus never had one, or because an impassable rift formed and they were separated permanently. (I am not referring to those who have outlived their entire family) In any event, no one visits, and no one (besides us) supports. Often through the course of interaction with these folks, it does not take a herculean stretch to surmise why no one comes. As they do their best to burn bridges even with you, you can begin to smell traces of a lifetime of burnt bridges trailing behind them; of many rivers crossed that can never be crossed again. Every bad thing that has ever happened, including the current situation, is somebody else’s fault. Sometimes, even though we have just met, it is even MY fault! Recrimination and bitterness abound right up to the end, until the realization that the end has come and you are alone. But by then, it is far too late.
Two extreme situations, to be sure. And yet, I have seen both of these and many subtle shades in between. Here is what am taking along with me from this: The decisions we make, even the seemingly small ones, matter. More importantly, how and why we make the decisions we do, matter. What we believe, matters. And how we treat other people throughout our lives, matters completely. No one is likely to spend time looking over our shoulders to see if our words match our actions, but that is no basis for altering how we live, anyway. In the end, there will be no fooling even a passive witness.
Live your life the way you would like to be remembered.