Sunday, July 5, 2015

That Unremembering Sleep

July 5, 2015

Dear Friends,

In thinking about the relationship between diminishment and love (both in the giving and receiving of love), several of you pointed out that I omitted an essential factor in the way I presented the issue last week.

You noted (rightly) that love cannot be properly considered apart from the context of human choice. 

In essence, as I understood the important point you made, diminishment has the power indeed to produce “unlovable” characteristics, but, nevertheless, diminishment per se cannot eliminate the power of choice in the context of love.

For example, when dementia is associated, as it sometimes is, with acts of unprovoked rage and uncontrolled body functions, expression of love becomes very difficult. However, the “how” to love in this context is another issue quite apart from the human choice to love whatever the circumstances.

Your thinking [love chosen in a challenging context] closely reflected Paul’s description of love in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13). From the standpoint of Christian ethics, love is indeed a choice that at a foundational level functions independently from diminishment.

This point challenges my thinking and my living at two levels, and raises two questions.

One, is it possible for me to live now in such a way that were the diminishment of dementia to occur that my life pattern of living now would make the choice to love me less difficult for those caring for me then? 

Two (heads up: this is the neurobiologist-wanna-be in me), is it possible to live the pattern of loving into the neurons in such a way that the basic “map” of choosing to love continues to guide behavior when conscious power to monitor and shape cognitive behaviors has deteriorated?

I want to think with you about the first challenge this week, and leave number two until next week. Today a short blog seems better than a long one.  I anticipate reader agreement (smiles).

Erik Erikson viewed human development as progressing through a number of stages, culminating in stages seven and eight.

In Stage Seven, Erikson proposed that the adult faces the psychological tasks of generativity, the need to create and nurture things that will outlast the individual.

In Stage Eight, the adult faces the psychological task of integrity, by which Erikson meant that in the review of life that occurs in the years approaching death, the individual is challenged to look back and integrate life accomplishments in a positive way.

According to Erikson, failure in Stage Seven leads to stagnation rather than generativity.

Failure in Stage Eight leads to despair rather than integrity, i.e., a sense that life has not been lived well.

The relationship of love and diminishment immediately raises the traditional tasks of aging [Stages Seven and Eight] to a quite different level than Erikson’s concept of adult life. Generativity and integrity in this sense incorporate more than achievement. In this context, the legacy that matters includes the relational memories that I leave behind not simply the tangible record or results of my achievements.

An example.

When I was a young adult, Kansas law made it possible for individuals who had completed two years of college that included required educational courses to be employed as teachers in designated country schools. Shortly after my nineteenth birthday, I signed a contract to teach in such a school.

During that first year, I became aware of an aging woman who lived alone in a deteriorating house at the corner of the street where I lived. She had severely limited mobility, but when sitting on her porch she would speak to me. One day she told me with a smile that she thought teachers were very important people. Throughout the winter, she would wave to me from the window when I walked past.

In late spring I realized that I had not seen her for several days and asked Irma (clerk at the post office, aka official community grape vine,) about Bertha.

“They took Bertha to the hospital last week,” Irma explained. “She had some kind of stroke, and I don’t think she recognizes anybody—her daughter maybe,” Irma continued. “I myself doubt if she ever comes home.”
Young as I was, this event made a ripple in my sense of personal immortality. I determined to visit Bertha in the hospital whether she knew me or not, and made arrangements to do so the next weekend.

Bertha gave no sign of conscious awareness when I entered her room. She continued to sleep, the guttural sounds—inhale—exhale—the only sound in the room. I sat down in the chair by her bed feeling self-conscious and unsure of myself.

“What,” I asked myself, “are you doing here? Obviously, Bertha cannot wake up and say hello. And you wouldn’t recognize Bertha’s daughter if she came.”

But the daughter did not come. No one came. It was just Bertha and I and the terrible labored sound of Bertha’s breathing. 

But sitting quietly, I noticed some lilacs in a Mason jar on Bertha’s bedside table. I thought perhaps her daughter had brought them.

After what seemed a long time, a nurse came to check on Bertha. 

“Are you Bertha’s daughter?” she asked with a gentle smile.

“No.” I paused. How in the world could I explain myself to this nurse, or to Bertha’s daughter if she came?

“I—well, I’m a neighbor, sort of,” I explained rather lamely. Then, seeking to bridge the silence with the nurse, I said, “Those lilacs are beautiful, and I love their scent.”

“Yes,” agreed the nurse.

Then the nurse paused, then added, “A woman brought them yesterday. I explained to her that Bertha wouldn’t know that she had brought them. The woman left them anyway.

She said, ‘That’s all right. Maybe in her sleep she can smell them just the same. We were neighbors and we both loved lilacs and the smell of them. We used to laugh about ordering ever-blooming lilac bushes for our yards in heaven.’ ”

With a last professional glance at Bertha, the nurse made a note on the chart and left the room.

And then there was just Bertha and I and the lilacs.

And after a while, it seemed that my time with Bertha was over, so I left too, Bertha sleeping and the scent of lilacs hanging in the air.

Thinking with you that I want to live in such a way now that then a neighbor will leave lilacs to scent my unremembering sleep.

See you next week.



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