Forward-Looking Inconvenience

This morning, I listened to a reading of Peter Taylor’s Port Chochere. The character of “Old Ben” is inspiring of sympathy…sort of in the same way that the elderly man in the garage inspires a sort of sympathy in my last post. There’s a great deal of depth to this character, a depth that leaves you disliking him and feeling sorry for him at the same time.

It’s interesting where fiction takes us when we read it…how it can take two different readers to two entirely different places. I found that I was placing myself in the position of an elderly man, separated from the world and watching it pass by, helpless to engage it despite my best efforts, and, most intensely, longing for affection. I can only imagine what it would be to experience a deprivation of affection from those closest to you, to live in anticipation as they politely engaged you for a defined period of time. What would it be like to exist in that precious time, knowing it would end soon…likely as soon as your children or grandchildren became hungry and needed to get some fresh air? What would it be like in the possible despair of knowing that you were condemned to remain in whatever environment in which they chose to limit their time? What sort of way would that be to finish out one’s mortal existence?

I suppose I carry this as a sort of guilt, because I know that, despite my best intentions, I did that very thing with my grandmother before her death last winter. I would travel to visit her whenever possible, sure, and I would talk to her on the phone sporadically. My phone conversations were cut short when I became irritated at having to repeat the same information over and over due to her rapidly deteriorating memory, and my visits were limited by boredom and an inability to engage her in conversation as she struggled to maintain contact with the reality surrounding her. I didn’t realize how many moments and potential conversational breakthroughs that I had permitted to pass without any attempt to apprehend them until they…and she…were gone. On my best day, I want to muster the energy to never let that happen again.

Karen and I still have grandparents on both sides of our family, but exist in the tension of knowing that they likely won’t be around much longer. I’ve been wondering today about the edge placed on their daily existence as they are confronted with their pending mortality. I wonder how it feels for them. I wonder how our visits feel to them. I wonder if those visits are giving of any sort of emotional life at all.

It’s so easy to become bored and disengaged when visiting elderly family…so easy to want to get back to the quicker pace of the daily lifestyle to which we’re accustomed. I think that temptation, though, may ironically be just the sort of flaw from which Old Ben suffered in Port Cochere: an escape from what was necessary in favor of what we want for ourselves. Phrases like “it’s not about me” become over-used to the point of disgusting cliche in some religious circles; the concept of “moving outside of yourself” has been used in one too many motivational speeches. Yet, the key to breathing some vitality into the final days of elderly family members is prioritizing their emotional pulse over our own comforts.

The beauty is that it is about us at one level, because we only benefit: we are offered the opportunity to hear amazing stories, and benefit from the wisdom of a life already lived…a chance to be warned away from mistakes. This reciprocates vitality back to the one giving the wisdom, because someone one receiving their wisdom means that their life meant something, that something will indeed be missing from the terrestrial world when they are gone.

Geographic distances make it difficult to see family members on a regular basis for most of us (assuming that most grandparents don’t Skype). So perhaps the focus of our effort should be quality instead of quantity? As the Holidays are around the proverbial corner, perhaps we can manage to partake of some wisdom, to take vitality to those elderly in our families, to just be present in a tangible way to those people.

I know that we’ll long for the same kindness when we’re in their position.


  1. I carry the same guilt concerning grandparents. I can’t get them back, but what I’ve tried (and mostly failed) to do since is recognize people who suffer from the same disconnection. These people might be any age, might be sitting at a coffee shop or working at the gas station, but are still craving someone to make eye contact and truly ask them about their day.

    Thank you for the reminder. I’m going to attempt better today.

  2. I definitely identify…as my family is in another country all together! (though they are still geographically close than some of my American friends! :).

    It is definitely quality, and to be fair, sometimes when you see people all the time you take them for granted. There is something that is so rich about time spent with loved ones that you only get to see on occasion. Though it would be nice to be able to stop by on a random rainy afternoon and chat with grandparents over a cup of hot cocoa on any old day…

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