February – From the Minister

An older couple I know and love are both in their late ’90s. Creatures of habit now by necessity, they are also no strangers to the constant disruptions of daily living and frequent betrayals by their physical selves of the vibrant people that they are still “inside.”

One of them lives increasingly with both hearing loss and memory loss; he can’t always understand why the world has gone suddenly so quiet. “Speak up! ” he shouts, to people in the room, to the Jeopardy contestants on TV, to the teller at the bank. His partner sometimes strains her voice, both with loud speaking and by constantly repeating her responses to his most simple questions, asked over and over when the answers slip through the screen doors of his mind. He’s still physically strong and hale; she is less so, and together they daily re-negotiate all the old familiar dance steps in the partnered waltz of their life: he adjusts his long stride and vigorous pace so they can walk together across a parking lot; she checks her ferocious independence, and her pride, and asks him (shouts at him) to help carry the laundry basket. He grieves whole-heartedly the loss of his driver’s license, although he gets it and does not complain; she misses deep conversation with him, and entire chapters of their shared life which his memory can’t retain, but still she cheerfully converses. This past year, they weathered two hurricanes, sheltering in place in their apartment for 10 days with no electricity, gas or running water, and when their cellphones were finally charged up again, both reported that they’d lived through worse. Every day, they readjust their plans and expectations to accommodate new and deepening afflictions – and amazingly, they do not stop planning. They are still vigorous and vital, in their way, still eager to wake up in the morning and still grateful to lie down at night, side by side.

There is something so poignant and so lovely in their constancy, in the way each has stayed true to the core of the self, the essence of character and spirit that defines them and has always defined them. They are modest in their needs, generous in their concern, alert to the world around them (including the worlds of politics, art and technology), and matter-of-fact about mortality. They are kind to each other and to others.

It doesn’t always go this way with memory loss and aging; often and understandably, people get crabby or depressed as they age – but not these two. He still rests his hand on her shoulder as he walks by, and ever more gently as her shoulders have sharpened and slumped; she still raises her hand to brush against his, murmuring “hello there” even though he can’t quite hear. They’ve been alive on the earth for 194 years combined, and they’ve known disappointment, disaster and disruption, from the Great Depression to the Second World War, from the deaths of their spouses, the loss of a brother, the loss of a child, to the loss of so much ordinary capacity. We think of “disruption” as disruptive, as if it were somehow the exception to the rule of orderly calm in this life, but these elders, and others, are teaching me that disruption – of plans, health, relationship, weather, everything – is the baseline and the ground on which we build our character. Nothing’s a given in this life, everything’s disruptable, yet some things stay the same, and more so, over time.

-Rev. Victoria Safford