In his book, Lightening Bolt, Hyemeyohsts Storm wrote, "In our youth the river of life flows towards us; in our old age the river flows from us."
As I pondered upon this passage I began to understand the reason why so many of our elders have been pushed aside. Why, instead of given a place of honor in a family member’s home, they’re shipped off to a nursing facility where they spend their few remaining years in solitude and self-pity.
The river of life that flows from them is stagnant, polluted by many years of spiritual neglect and self-indulgence. Instead of being a vast storehouse of wisdom they have nothing to share except bitterness. No wonder the fear of old age is so prevalent in our society.
I then began to see in my mind’s eye two women. Both were old, wrinkled, and bent from their many years, yet very different.
Lillian was sitting in a chair with her head in her hands staring at the floor in despair. As I approached, she raised her eyes to meet mine. Her pupils were black as Pennsylvania coal, seemingly void of all life. Her toothless mouth opened . . . and closed again. Without saying a word it returned to a thin, crooked gash separating the point where her nose almost touched her chin. She slowly lowered her matted head to her hands and returned to her pre-occupation with the floor.
A shiver rushed through my body. I wondered what tragedy had entered her life to cause a woman who was once young, vibrant, and so beautiful her image had adorned the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine, to turn this ugly. What had life done to Lillian? Or in another sense, what had Lillian done with her life?
I watched as the ninety-three year old women walked cautiously down the path towards the TV cameras. It seemed as if a bad hip or something caused her slow gait, but she was smiling as the camera zoomed in upon her leathery face.
The first thing I noticed were her eyes. They were deep and vibrant, within them I saw intelligence, and kindness. This woman, who probably had not been much to look at in her youth, radiated in her old age an inner beauty far beyond the physical. As I examined her wrinkled skin I noticed how all the lines seemed to turn up at their ends. When she smiled I understood why.
I immediately felt drawn to her. Here was a person I would truly enjoy spending time with, one from whom I could glean much wisdom, and plenty of good conversation.
Although I don’t remember her name I’ll call her Joyce, because that’s my wife’s name and I pray that when she gets older, my wife will resemble this woman.
Both women had been born into wealthy families. Each had received the best education and benefits their social position had to offer. Each had made choices throughout their lives . . . and each in their old age were composites of those choices.
As the carefully contrived façade of youthful personality had slipped away, each women revealed to the world their true nature. The choices they had made were etched upon them, easier to read than a Dick and Jane primer for children.
* * *
Lillian had chosen a life of frivolous indulgence. As an only child her parents doted upon her every whim and she quickly became entrenched in the center of her own selfish universe.
While in college, men were awed by her physical beauty and stumbled over each other to get next to her. She was the life of every party. Attention, alcohol, and sex were her main sources of enjoyment. She lived to dance.
After college she married and had two children. Five years later she tired of marriage, divorced her husband, and deserted the kids.
Free once again to do her own thing, the lovely socialite slowly devolved through the years to giving quickies in the parking lot to anybody willing to pay the price of another drink.
Her mind, kidneys, and liver slowly burned out from fighting the ravages of alcohol. Now, her life nearly over, she sat in the nursing home waiting fearfully to take her last dance with the devil.
* * *
Joyce had chosen a life of service. As the cameras rolled, she explained that after graduating from college with a teaching degree, she sought a way to share her wealth and knowledge with underprivileged girls.
Because of her love for nature she purchased the summer camp sitting along a beautiful lake in coastal Maine where she now stood. Here, she took the girls in and taught them to walk a different path, a better one, void of the temptations of inner city life.
She taught them to be in control of their lives. That it didn’t matter where they were born or how much money they had, their lives were in their own hands and they had no one to blame if it went sour except themselves. They created their futures . . . by the individual choices they were making in the present.
She also lent money to any of the girls who wished to go to college. This she would require after graduation to be paid back in full so that it would be available for the next girl. She told the TV camera that in all the years she had been holding the camps and loaning money, only twice had the tuition not been paid back.
She was now retiring and passing the reigns of her camp to her daughter. She would remain in an advisory position, but she wanted to take some time to write a book. Even in her advanced age, she was looking forward to the future.
Here was a woman who, when the time came, would peacefully exit this world without fear or remorse. One who would leave behind nothing but the love and admiration of the grateful many she’d helped during the years she’d walked among them.
It’s all about choices, think of that next time you find yourself behind the eight ball. The next time you’re looking for someone to blame for your circumstances. If you are honest with yourself, you’ll be able to trace your way back to the foolish decision that put you there.