Wrinkles are imprinted with the wisdom elders have to share
As I sit with Marie, who is dying in her nursing home bed, I reflect on the immense respect and love that I have for the elderly. I look at the two treasured pictures of Jesus, the small dresser with possibly all her belongings in it, the lotions and other comfort items scattered on the tables and trays.
When I was a child, I knew that I loved elderly people, who for me were my grandmother and grandfather. When I was around people who were past middle age, they held some strange, mysterious hope that I could not always understand. The wrinkles on their faces — the traces of lives lived — did not depict ugliness or something to avoid. They seemed to say to me that these people had conquered so much more than I had as a child and let me know how impatient I was, having to wait for that wisdom.
My grandfather was a rancher. He might have been 5 feet 4 inches tall in his boots, but he was a giant in my eyes. He was the kindest, most patient and tolerant man I have ever known. He taught me to ride a horse. He would hold my hand gently yet firmly as we walked into the pasture. He would tell me not to be scared of the cows, which to me appeared like huge beasts that would attack at any moment. The one time I was experimenting with cigarettes, he did not yell or even scold but told me not to get caught. Well, the last bit of advice was probably not the best for an adult to tell a child, but he was a beacon of light in the anxiety of my childhood.
As a chaplain, I love to take my son to the nursing home. He looks with curious amazement as he sees people in wheelchairs with white hair and yet with a light in their eyes. We played bingo last week for the first time at the nursing center, and when he yelled “bingo” — as only an almost-5-year-old can yell when securing his first accomplishment at anything — for that moment, the old and the young were all in this life together, enjoying the moment and smiling.
Every hand that I hold represents the lifelong respect I have for the elderly. I observe the richness in their world, similar to how a fortune-teller might read palms to tell the future, yet their hands tell me a bit about their past. Maybe God created us to age this way as a reminder that our lives are imprinted on our souls and wisdom on our hands. As the Book of Proverbs states, “The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old.”
It is tempting to fill the space with words as I sit here with Marie, her eyes open, her voice silent. I gently caress her hand, adjusting her oxygen tube so it is comfortable in her nose, and stroke her gray hair. I ask God to use me as he sees fit in her last moments. I respect and accept her desire to be quiet. And I pray to God to guide my heart to be kind, loving and respectful in her remaining days as her wonderful body takes that last beautiful breath in this life and exhales gently into the next.
The Rev. Janice Spence