His name is Reid and he used to be a farmer. But that was a lifetime ago and now he is far from the farm he used to care for.
Far from the call of roosters and sizzling, early morning bacon. Far from his Carhartt overalls and the morning dew that covered his International Harvester. Far from the soft muzzle of his loyal border collie.
Far from life as he knew it. But then, time unfolds and most of us don’t end up where we thought we would.
I don’t know Reid’s whole life story. Only the fragments that nurses tell me in the memory unit. You see, Reid barely remembers who is is. Just bits and pieces.
Marooned on an ultimate lift recliner
My mother moved into the memory unit in late August. It’s located on the third floor and her room has lovely views of the surrounding mountains of Southern Nevada.
These mountains are far from the Long Island shores of her childhood. Or the redwoods of northern California where she raised my sister and I. But then my wife, son and I relocated here and she wanted to remain close.
Life’s circumstances carry us along, like leaves in a river. We never know where we’ll end up.
What’s funny is that Mom’s memory is just fine. We jumped at the available room in the memory unit because the staff to resident ratio is higher. People lost in the fog of dementia require a higher level of care.
Mom’s mind may be sound, but she suffers from Parkinson’s disease. She is unable to walk and barely able to answer the phone or feed herself.
You think she’d be cranky and bitter. Yet, at 84 years old, her attitude is remarkable. She takes each day as it comes, with a light spirit and sense of humor. And a love for desserts!
How many of us could do that? How many of us could sit, marooned on an ultimate lift recliner, and still joke about life? Still smile, laugh and find meaning in each day?
“I am now face to face with dying, but I am not finished with living.” — Oliver Sacks
Afternoon wine and a gentle visitor
The highlight of Mom’s afternoon is the wine service. The staff bring her a baby bottle filled with cabernet sauvignon, and a bendable straw. That way she can sip every last drop.
Wine probably tastes better in a crystal glass, but it’s hard to beat a baby bottle and straw when you’ve got tremors.
When I visit, Mom often talks about the past. The antics of pets long gone, our family exploits, and the little joys of so many yesterdays.
Sometimes, as we chat with one another, we hear the almost silent arrival of Reid. Barefoot in his wheelchair, he pads slowly into my mother’s room.
Reid is a large, robust looking man, even at his advanced age. He works his way into Mom’s room, mostly out of routine. You see, a close buddy of his used to live in Mom’s room.
Reid doesn’t realize his buddy passed away. He keeps visiting the room, out of habit. Or maybe, Reid is communing with his friend’s spirit?
Some mornings, Reid quietly wheels into Mom’s room and makes his way to the window. The sunlight bathes the window sill, and Reid likes to warm his hands in the light.
I wonder if the warmth reminds him of the farm he used to work on? Early sunrises and a different time, when life was simpler. When life made more sense.
I ask Reid about his life sometimes, expecting erratic answers. He talks of cattle and sunsets. Crops and tools. It’s random, but I get the gist. Even in his advanced years, he still pulls up those memories of the past.
Life’s simpler rhythms
I ask Reid about the people he worked with. His responses are random. “He was a good man. Yes sir, a good man,” Reid offered. Then he’s quiet, and a smile creases his face.
“Oh, those pies were grand,” Reid said, as he looked into my eyes. “Never pass up pie. You don’t know when it will come around again.”
Reid gets quiet and rests his head in his hands. I think about his pie comment. “Stop and smell the roses,” I think to myself. “Slow down so you don’t miss out on these simple pleasures in life.” That’s what Reid is talking about.
Face it, we all do it. We immerse ourselves in the chaos of work, love, money, and status. We chase things and never slow down to appreciate the here and now.
I think the peace I sense in Reid is the fact that he lives in the moment. Yes, memories join him there, but he’s not focused on the future. He’s not troubled by endless goals or what tomorrow will bring.
Reid reminds me of tranquil moments. Like the peace of sitting in a garden. Or the joy of listening to quail as they call to one another. The companionship and warmth of a cat on your lap. Everyday joys that calm our souls and reveal life’s simpler rythms.
When I listen to Reid share his scattered reflections, it’s never about buying a new BMW, voting for some candidate or complaining about an indignity.
There are no boasts and he’s not waiting for me to finish a sentence so he can talk. Rather, he seems to rejoice in the simpler pleasures of life. He sometimes rubs his shoulders and leans back comfortably. His words and actions reveal the quietude in his soul.
Reid makes me want to find more of that in my life. More peace and serenity. I feel it when immersed in the flow of my art. But then ambitions, responsibilities, and the incessant urgency of time intrude my mind.
Thinking of Reid helps me slow down. Isn’t it funny that when we talk about people getting older, we say they are “slowing down.”
Yes, arthritis and aging bodies lessen the spring in our step. But maybe, the overlooked gift of aging is that our minds slow down.
Like zen masters, we stop competing with the noise. We allow our minds to settle into a calmer cadence. As if some celestial mother has taken our tired psyches and gently rocked us.
The truer depths of life
We need the elderly. Even when their minds are feeble or lost to us. We need them to help lead us to places we’re not ready to go. They are gentle docents, showing us the landscape of what will someday be us.
Visiting these distant lands of aging help us prepare. It teaches us about the truer depths of life. Beyond our careers, conquests and petty struggles.
We discover, as the late actor David Cassidy reflected on shortly before his death, how much time is wasted. Wasted on superficiality, material things, addictions and our egos.
If only we could get out of our own way, we’d allow the simpler gifts of life to reveal themselves to us. We used to be able to see and delight in them as children. Before our minds filled with appointments, competitions and the cacaphony of adulthood.
The columnist George Will once wrote that “Memories are roses in our winter.” When we are old and the flame is beginning to smolder, memories are the last remnants.
They manage to light the caverns of our minds with flickers of happiness. Distant pieces of our lives from earlier days. When our dreams and ambitions still burned bright.
Things don’t really impress me. Memories impress me. It’s not the toys, it’s the people. — R. A. Salvatore
Visions of the past are sometimes all we have left. I suspect they are what sustains Reid now, as he inches closer to the vale.
I am glad to be a spectator. To spend a few moments with Reid, as he traverses this stage of life. Because sooner or later, we all must confront the sunset of our lives.
Until then, I hope the sunshine warms my hands, too.
(Originally published at Medium for members)