I was talking with my grandfather (“Pop Pop Pop” or “Three Pops,” as he is often also called) the other day and he told me a great story. It was so good that I thought I would share it with you.
Imagine that you are an old, old man. Your body is betraying you in the ways that broken down, worn out things eventually do, but your mind remains sharp. That is probably because you continue to challenge yourself each and every day with puzzles and crosswords and sudoku and interesting people who have interesting conversations. And you have the occasional fist fight from your electric wheelchair with the a-hole who insisted on shooting off his stupid mouth about how the Marines are better than the Navy. Wheelchair be damned, you kicked that punk to the curb. Respect.
You get up and out every single day. Your calendar is more full now than it was 20 years ago. You sign up for every field trip they make available to you. You go to the casinos to play poker and the race track to play the ponies. You go see the Phillies and the Eagles play. You visit with your daughters and sons-in-law and your grandchildren and their children too. You run for leadership positions at the Veteran’s Home and you win (by a landslide), mainly because people know you know people who matter and you know how to get things done. It is still about the respect.
When you were a young man you made some less-than-stellar choices. You may have participated in some less-than-noble activities. But you had fun. You lived hard and fast. You lived by a code and you earned the respect that you got. Looking back you realize that you may have hurt some of the people who you loved the most. Sometimes you were selfish. Sometimes you got angry. Sometimes you made justifications to get what you wanted. But also you were generous. You were a big man who lived a big life. Understandably, some of your regrets are big too. It brings tears to your eyes these days, something that rarely happened back in the day.
But that is what happens when you turn into an old, old man. You have more time for reflection. More time to think. More time to try to make amends. And more time for annoying doctor’s visits to deal with your traitorous, failing body. Some of the things that are happening to you make you want to ask for forgiveness, both to clear the air and to allay your fears that all too often start to creep in. Fear of lonely, fear of old, fear of dead. Fear of The End. Fear of where you might go… you know, after you die. I mean how bad is too bad to still get into heaven? And the fear gets more tangible as time passes, especially when the doctor tells you that you need another surgery.
So you go to the hospital and you hold your oldest daughter’s hand and you listen as she says she loves you (and you grumble “me too” back at her) and you get on the gurney and you count backwards “ten, nine, eight…” as you fall deep into the fog of anesthesia. And for a while you exist in suspension, floating around yourself, watching what the doctors and nurses do to your broken body as they try to mend it. It does not really matter if it is a dream or if it is really happening. You are still pretty sharp in the mind. Sharp enough to recognize that the fear is still lingering. Sharp enough to realize that you are in a white room with a cloudy haze over everything, like you are observing through gauze. And you hear music. It is beautiful and light and graceful. And through the anesthesia you see that a beautiful angel is playing a giant harp, and she is beautiful and light and graceful too. And you feel peaceful and you think of church (…even though you haven’t been inside of many) and you think of heaven and you think of God. And you are confused, but happy because you thought maybe you were so bad that you might not go to the Good Place. You begin to think that you are dead and that this is the beginning of The End.
But as that possibility is registering, you are overpowered by exhaustion and you fall back to sleep. It is a deep, dreamless sleep. In a few minutes or hours or a day, you wake up again. This time the room is still white, but there is no beautiful angel playing beautiful music with her harp. There is only a nurse who has come to check your vitals and tell you that your surgery went extremely well.
“The doctor will be with you shortly,” she tells you. You are now wondering if you made the whole thing up. You decide to be vulnerable and say something to the nice nurse.
“I think I died. I was in heaven and an angel was playing gentle music on a harp.” She stifles a little chuckle.
“No, hon, that was just Dolores. She volunteers here and she brings her harp from room to room to play for the surgery patients. It is therapeutic.”
“Therapeutic, my ass! That’s a damn good way to give an old man a heart attack,” you say. Then you wink at the nurse and tell her she can make it up to you by taking you to the track so you can bet on some horses. This old man’s still got a whole lot of living to do.
Wish me luck for tomorrow…