Goodbye

Last Friday we watched your birds. We sat in the shaded part of the cement patio, both remarking on the delightful warmth of the day. The three-tiered stone fountain bubbled and splashed a lulling rhythm. Playful sparrows hopped along the edges, dipped beaks in for a quick drink, coming up with feathers askew in a mohawk shape that made you laugh. Cardinals swooped in with a flash of scarlet. A rambunctious squirrel darted among the doves for discarded seeds, grasping his cache between grateful paws. There were an unusual amount of birds accompanying us on the patio. They were not deterred by our presence. We were amused by theirs.

We had many afternoons similar to this. Once I discovered your fondness for the outdoors, it became a welcome part of both of our days. We’d pause during our sessions to just observe the world around us. Not knowing the names of the different trees, you’d point out your favorite ones by the shape of the leaves. I’d notice the pattern of the bark. One day, we watched a mom and son cart a wagon load up that steep hill, and we took bets on whether they would make it. Guessing at their load, we wondered why they took the wagon instead of the truck sitting in the drive. You told me stories about this neighborhood from when you were a kid, and you came to this very building to visit the residents with your grandfather. As I carefully navigated the wheels of your chair back to the building, I imagined you skipping up the sidewalk as a young girl.

Monday afternoon I am called to your room. You cannot speak. You try, but we cannot understand. Your eyes have a faraway look in them, which I mistake for fatigue. Illness. As I smooth back soft strands of wispy white hair from your forehead, I call your name. Do you see me? I wipe away beads of sweat with a cool washcloth and pat your arm. My mind is searching for a way to comfort you. Does everyone else understand what I do not? Your sister prays aloud as she holds your hand and I am still calling your name over labored breathing, when I am suddenly aware of an audible silence. A final calm falls over your body, and in that moment my composure breaks as hot tears sting my eyes. Quiet whimpers and sniffs fill the room. A small crowd gathers in disbelief. It was so fast. 

—–

You always wondered at the language of the birds. Often you would gently talk to them. It seems fitting that so many came to visit you that Friday afternoon. There are pieces of our conversation that come back to me, but there is one quote that stood out then and even more so today. As you tried to describe your enjoyment of the simple pleasure of delighting in nature, you said, “Being out here like this, it just lights me up inside.”

All week I half expected to see you sitting in the dining room. It feels strange to walk by your room. Your absence is palpable. I know this will fade in time. And I know I already said this while you were with me, but it bears repeating. Thank you. Thank you for all of the peaceful afternoons we spent together. Thank you for sharing your warm memories. Thank you for sharing your light.

 

Perception

I sit at the edge of her bed and talk about nutrition, hydration, and the recent eating problems she’s been having. She’s a wisp of a woman who I could easily lift out of bed. Her clothes hang askew in a way that shows recent weight loss. Her cheeks have a wrinkled, sunken look and she’s more bone than muscle, with not even a trace of fat. As we talk about her progress, the “limited intake”(speech therapy code for “not eating”), she opens up and admits that it feels good being thin. She doesn’t want to get fat again. When I mention she could easily gain 5 pounds and notice no difference, her eyes widen in disbelief. Maybe fear. She tells me that she used to be “big”—at least adding 50 pounds to her current slight frame. There are no pictures in her room to confirm this, but I read the truth in her eyes. And I find myself telling her, “I used to be chubby, too. When I was a teenager.” Her eyes widen further and she shakes her head in disbelief. But when I describe what I think she’s feeling, she sees truth in my eyes. Suddenly there aren’t 45 years between us. We could easily be girlfriends talking late into the night.

We talk openly about how difficult it is to get past those old perceptions of ourselves. I assure her I am not trying to make her gain weight—that I just want her to be healthy—and her posture relaxes. She smiles. She’ll work with me on this “food” thing. She’ll try.

What kind of broken world do we live in when an 85-year-old woman has issues with body image? What kind of dark path has society walked that a clearly malnourished elderly woman finds worth in being thin? Yet, we pretend that these are the problems of youth. If a young woman in her teens or 20s struggles with body issues, we figure she’ll grow out of it. Severe cases might warrant therapy, but we otherwise adopt an attitude that these problems will somehow disappear over the years. What do we assume is the cure? Marriage? Parenthood? I don’t see how women are supposed to break free of this when body image is so ingrained in our culture.

I can walk into any grocery store on any given day and see “fitness” magazines full of images of thinness that are not realistically achievable by most women. And even if they are, what values are being driven out to achieve them? Physical beauty is something we’re born into. Or we’re not. The preferred body type of the decade is something we’re genetically predisposed to. Or we’re not.

How do we combat this? I wish I had more answers. I am filled with a general angst and frustration with the value placed on the physical beauty of women. We’re all a bit guilty, and we all buy into the lies in one way or another. We all want to believe in a better world where we see people for inner beauty. In the movie Shallow Hal, the main character is brainwashed into seeing people for their inner beauty—or ugliness. The results are irreverent, silly, and strangely heartwarming. As light as the movie is, I’ve often found myself wishing I could go through life being brainwashed like this, whether I’m looking at others, or looking in the mirror.