Joe wheeled up to the table each night in his motorized wheelchair. He always moved at a fast pace. I and the other residents sitting on the opposite side of the table would grab our dishes, because occasionally he cruised into the table sending things flying. Joe always smiled and chuckled when that happened, with an excuse that he knew we wouldn’t believe.
Most of us sitting around the table and in the independent and assisted living where we lived told stories of home. In our hearts we wished we could be back there. Joe was no different, but he had accepted assisted living was where he needed to be. His outgoing personality and witty remarks lit up the place.
I remember one conversation about moving away from where he lived his life. Joe said he missed his home in a neighboring town but there was nothing left for him there. All his friends were dead. There was sadness in his voice as he remembered those he shared his life and memories with.
Joe died a few months ago but I’ll never forget him or that conversation. When we’re young, death hits us, especially if it is a close friend or relative. I know it did me, but as I grow older I understand more the repercussions it has on those of us that are up there in age.
Many years ago, right after my husband and I were married, I noticed that whenever my mother-in-law picked up the paper she immediately turned to the obituaries. I thought it was kind of morbid, but at the time she told me it was because she wanted to make sure she didn’t miss sending a sympathy card or attending a funeral of friends that died.
Joe’s statement and my mother-in-laws words come back to me while pondering grief. I now understand. At our age friends and family leave us frequently for their heavenly home, sometimes numerous times a week. There’s more to it than mourning the person who was a part of our life for most of our years. It’s not having that person to talk to that shares your history. Each person shares a unique part of us that no one else can claim. Conversations, experiences good and bad, might only be shared with one or two people.
The other day I thought about the video of a unique funeral given for my cousin, Charlie, when he died. He used to take his four wheeler and travel in the mountain paths near his home in Northern California. That’s where they held his funeral, amongst the mountains and grasses and flowers high up in a place he loved. I wanted to share my thoughts with my cousin, Martha. She and I had watched the videotape together the first time. But Martha is having a conversation in heaven with Charlie along with all my other first cousins on my dad’s side. I can’t share my memories of those California times with anyone else that shared them with me.
A photo took me back to a memory of my high school years. Karen was one of my best friends in grade school and high school and beyond. Karen died when she was 39 and I still miss her, and I miss our conversations about our high school adventures. I could relate them to others but they wouldn’t get it because they weren’t there.
I asked my sister by another mother, Mary, if she wanted to come back and be my date at my next class reunion. Though she graduated a year after I did, we shared many of the same friends. It would be 55 years for me. Mary pointed out that the people she and I created most of our memories with were probably having their reunion in heaven.
My point? We mourn those we lose: family members, friends and acquaintances, but there is so much more under the grief. We also mourn the loss of someone who shared experiences, high points and low points of our lives. There is something sacred in being able to go down memory lane with a friend, or a family member, who are the only ones that share that same memory. Memories of the past that can’t be shared with your special person anymore leaves one feeling lonely. When you get to be the age I and many others are, there are more that shared your history who are gone than are alive.
Like Joe, we realize our tribe is getting smaller. I have a hunch when you hear that an older person is lonely and you encourage them to get out more, or participate more, that the loneliness is on a deeper level. We can be in a crowd of people, enjoying ourselves, making new friends, but yet there is deep loneliness that shares a place in the heart with heartfelt memories. It is a loneliness that can’t be replaced with activity, new friends or even a beautiful attitude. It is the loneliness of memories we can’t share with the ones that helped us create those past moments.
I sometimes get lonely when listening to music of my past because I remember where I was and who I was with when the music played. Yet, I also smile, sing and am thankful for who I got to share my past with. It’s a catch-22 moment and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
I haven’t quite accepted this is where I am in my life. As I made out sympathy cards this morning, too many for one week, these thoughts whirled about in my mind. I know I’m not alone. It’s the passage of time and it goes fast.
It takes a long time as the saying goes, to grow old friends. The people we now meet will become friends but we’ll share a new, shorter history. It doesn’t mean they are less important in our lives, but that we don’t have the years left to build a long history.
Recently I was watching a tv interview after a tragedy, and the person being interviewed said, “If I had known that would be the last time I would be talking to him I might have taken more time to talk.” Sadly we all feel that way at some point. And it also scares us. The fragility in our lives.
I take comfort in a memory that happened while my mother was in her last days. She was smiling the biggest smile ever. Her attention was on a corner of the room. My mom was the last of her family, her five brothers preceding her in death. I asked her why she was smiling and she said, “Because I am going to see my mom and dad and my brothers soon.” The memory of the moment gives me comfort that she knew and saw something we didn’t.
There is a thankfulness in our memories even while we feel the loneliness from those we lost. We have lived, made the memories, and met and shared lives with those old friends, and because of what we shared we have been blessed in our lives on our road to becoming senior saints as they call us older folks in my church.
“The thing is, when you see your old friends, you come face to face with yourself. I run into someone I’ve known for 40 to 50 years and they’re old. And I suddenly realize I’m old. It comes as an enormous shock to me.