July 20th, 2009
A beautiful and wise woman died today. She was my wife’s great Aunt, and to us she was truly great. She taught without knowing she taught. Her lessons were simple. She didn’t teach by pontificating, she taught by living with a gentle style and strength that lifted everyone who knew her. She led by example.
I will never forget my last visit with her. I had been pulled to Houston by the need to visit a friend having surgery at MD Anderson. Sadly or wonderfully, his problem drew me there, and on the way out of town my wife prevailed upon me to visit Adie.
At 96 she was still living at home with the help of her son. Frail and tottering she met me at the back door. There was a small sign there. It said that back door friends are best. That sign had been my first impression of her 16 years ago when she was a youngster of 80.
She opened that back door and greeted me with a hug, saying that she was so glad to see me and wasn’t I wonderful to take time out of my day to visit with her. She mentioned that she was now fully blind, that her hearing was failing, and would I please sit right beside her on the couch so that she could hear me. She paused for a moment after we sat down as she realized what she was doing. It was an awkward pause… and there was never an awkward pause in her presence. She said, “Ah, there I go complaining, silly me,” as if she was disgusted with herself.
In that moment she took my hand, seemingly hungry for human touch. I hugged her thin shoulders and told her, “Hey Adie, I understand. My mother went through this. You can talk to me. Go ahead and complain a bit. It’s ok.”
And so she did. For the first time in the 16 years that I had known her, she complained. She told me what it was like to be 96. Many of her dearest friends were long gone. Her health was failing. Her blindness meant she could no longer see those she loved, and hearing loss left her in fear of an increasing isolation. For three minutes she held forth without a pause and without interruption or comment from me. The pain of being in love with life yet feeling it slip away was palpable.
Then she stopped. It was sudden. After a short pause, she looked up with a mischievous smile and said, “Enough of my grumps, let’s talk about the good stuff.”
For the next three hours we talked about life, and work, and kids, and growing up. I told story after story from our children’s lives; the five year old in-your-face girl athlete who has never met a stranger, and the ten year old precociously intellectual boy. She asked question after question, pulling information and stories from me that I had thought long forgotten. And still she gave better than she got. She told stories of her life, and her years, and her world. Story after story tumbled out, hers and mine and ours. They are faded a bit now, blended together. But what I remember clearly is the laughter.
It had been a brutal few years for our family; we had lost a beautiful home betting on a business, and then had lost the business. We had given everything and now must re-build from almost nothing. She knew all of this and more. She understood the pain and the need to heal and grow and re-build. She understood and helped me understand that a woman and a man would face this differently. She didn’t lecture or analyze, but she taught… and I listened. Closely.
For three hours I took a Master’s class on living, and loving, and moving forward. And laughing in the face of the pain and helping others to laugh.
For three hours, I sat beside her frail, failing body and let her lead us down a path of life and love and laughter. It was non-stop, no breaks, no pauses, just one story tumbling after the other. Sometimes interrupting each other as close friends or family will with a completed sentence or thought.
Later as I drove away, I looked back in wonder. At 96 she had been more alive in those three hours than most of us ever achieve. I also remember thinking: That’s about the right ratio—three minutes of complaining, and three hours of love and laughter.