It’s the broken slat on the chair that will keep our recent visit to Floyd focused in my mind. The soon-to-be ninety-nine year old husband of my late cousin Mildred lost his balance a few weeks back and misjudged the placement of the chair when he thought he was about to sit on it at the dining room table. He lives alone in his “cottage” at a retirement complex in southern Pennsylvania, so there was no one there to help him get up. Of course, he couldn’t get his cell phone to work so he lay there for a while before he could muster the strength to get back on his feet. While he lay on the floor, he “talked” to but not necessarily with Mildred.
When my wife Jody and I visited yesterday, our last couple of miles took us through rich farmland peopled by Mennonites whose fields have now been neatly harvested and put to bed for the winter. The fields are on each side of the country lane that pulls you along the ridge line and through the rolling pasture land. As we passed one farm, the field adjoining the large barn was almost a moonscape of jagged rock outcroppings, not at all hospitable to plowing. The patch of rock was a reminder that all was not that it seemed.
I had recently reread William Butler Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium that begins, “That is no country for old men.” As we neared the entry to where Floyd has lived for over twenty years, other lines of the poem came to mind:
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
The old soldier had recently recovered from pneumonia and tried to tell us of his ordeal, although he was still a bit muddled over what exactly happened when. Jody’s son Aaron and his special friend Shannon joined us a little after we arrived to enjoy a pre-Thanksgiving meal with Floyd. He perked up at their arrival and told me later how much he had enjoyed having them there in his house, which has few visitors these days. Mildred, or Midge to him, who was his social butterfly, has been gone now several years.
As we all tried to carry on a chat during lunch, Floyd strained to tell a few stories as best he could, since his hearing is not too good and he was fumbling over a few names. All of a sudden, though, his vision of Midge came clearly to him almost like a visitation. He paused and said their’s had been a true love.
He knows his time is growing short and mused a bit with me about considering hiring someone to fix his meals and to help him with his checkbook. He and Midge had no children. He was a university librarian all his life and prides himself on his neat and orderly life style. All of a sudden, he just stopped talking, as though he had excused himself to go into some other room to gather his thoughts. Then he simply said, “It’s here.”
When we left, I put the old and heavy oak chair in my car to take it home to repair. He objected as usual that it wasn’t necessary and that he didn’t want to impose on me. I am just hoping that he will still be with us when I return it to him on our next visit around Christmas. I think we sensed that his strong will to live seemed to have diminished a bit this time around. On a previous visit in late summer, he was bragging about his new hearing aids that were guaranteed for two years. He laughingly said they should take him to over the one-hundred year centennial mark of his birth. This visit he told Aaron and Shannon that he hoped they never had to rely on hearing aids, since they only remind him of what once was.
This morning, I read a short quip on the life of the American composer Carl Ruggles who died in 1971 at the age of ninety-five. Although his life was markedly different from Floyd’s, I smiled in my mind’s eye as I made some comparisons. When a young composer visited him one day in a nursing home, Ruggles said,
“Now don’t go feeling sorry. I don’t hang around this place, you know. Hell, each day I go out and make the universe anew-all over!”
A friend who lost a young nephew recently sent me the following thought from the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh. Although Floyd has been a strict Presbyterian all his life, I think he and the memory of Midge would agree with what this monk, teacher and poet has to say about our journey through this life:
This body is not me; I am not caught in this body, I am life without boundaries, I have never been born and I have never died. Over there the wide ocean and the sky with many galaxies. All manifests from the basis of consciousness. Since beginningless time I have always been free. Birth and death are only a door through which we go in and out. Birth and death are only a game of hide-and-seek. So smile to me and take my hand and wave good-bye. Tomorrow we shall meet again or even before. We shall always be meeting again at the true source, Always meeting again on the myriad paths of life. — No Death, No Fear