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  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

I wish I could recall the name of the harmonica player, but the truth is, he slipped into our lives one day without an introduction and slipped away just as quickly.

At my 83 year old mom's urging, we had agreed to play a concert for an adult day care program located in the basement of a moss covered local church tucked under a tangle of trees. As we descended the steps into the musty basement, we were greeted warmly not just by the volunteers, but also by a small group of differently-abled adults who were assisting them in serving meals to several of the seniors also in attendance.

Since we had anticipated only seniors, we had prepared an hour's worth of oldies but goodies, including the closing sing-a-long "Good Night Irene" in honor of my mom. As we began our set, one of these differently-abled adult helpers pulled out his harmonica. In a child like voice, he yelled out a request to play along, a request we quickly granted in the casual environment of our basement lunch concert.

He jumped out of his chair and bounded over next to me. As we led the group in some Pete Seeger song, he began to robustly play along, his harmonica in a completely different key and his skills somewhat less than stellar. But as the song ended, he looked up at me, his eyes shining, and he announced with a wide, toothless grin, his voice heavy with a lisp,

…rock and roll...we did that really good...rock and roll..

For the rest of our time, he bounced between his role as lead harmonica player in the band and lead dancer for any unpartnered lunch guest. He worked the room like a seasoned Vegas showman, and when it was all over, he sidled up one last time as we were packing up.

There was a swagger in his step as he took my guitar from my hand. "I want to carry your guitar," he said, smiling his toothless grin. "I will help you with the equipment." We walked out a side door and down a small concrete path wide enough for only one person at a time. He led.

"See the gray van towards the end?" I called up to him. "That's mine." I expected him to cross the gravel lot and meet me at the van, but he stopped cold at the end of the sidewalk and waited. When I caught up, I stepped off the curb, expecting him to follow.

But the only footsteps on the gravel were mine.

A host of thoughts crowded into my mind. Perhaps he liked my guitar. How would I let him know that he couldn't take it home? What if he dropped it? As I walked back to him, I noticed his face had changed. It seemed younger, less confident. I stood next to him awaiting his declaration. Suddenly I felt his touch. He had reached down and taken my hand in his.

I can't cross the street unless I hold someone's hand….

We walked across the lot and loaded the guitar, and then, holding his hand, I walked him back to the safety of the concrete sidewalk. Back on solid ground, he resumed his rock star demeanor and reclaimed his confidence.

"We need to play music again," he called out, " rock and roll..." As I looked back from the car, he was flashing the universal rock star sign.

I want to be like him, I thought, full of life and confidence, able to dance and sing unconcerned about my lack of coordination or my inability to carry a tune. I want to launch into good deeds with strangers and help carry the burdens of others.

But more than anything, when I face any obstacle, any fear, I want to simply reach out and take the hand of a fellow human being and trust with all my heart that I will be kept safe from the dangers that lurk beyond the safety of the well kept path.

The harmonica player gets it.

Someday, I hope to follow in his steps.

  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

Someday I hope to be able to trace the route that bitterness takes when it flees from a soul and takes up residence in a place that contains more fertile ground. For years, that most fertile ground was tilled in my own heart's soil which was rich with memories of childhood scars. Over the years, a garden grew that produced its own bitter fruits which I routinely fed upon in the absence of other sustenance. Absence did not make the heart grow fonder; it deepened the bitterness. Presence, oddly enough, began the process of creating a different soil from which compassion could grow.

In these last few days, there is no corner of my heart that contains even a shadow of that nearly a lifetime of bitterness. My 94 year old mom and my daughter and grandchildren have been experiencing her favorite hot springs resort in Canada.

Everything is a "just one more time" experience for her. She hobbles to the hot pools, and while part of me worries every second about the safety of any step she takes, another part of me knows that this journey is important to her, to her sense of purpose and place in this life.

Her skin is paper thin and her balance awkward. She is good for only nine stairs at a time, but it is still nine. Her vision is mostly gone, but she still tells me to tie my shoes so I don't trip. Her memories of what we have done or not done here are a kaleidoscope of various adventures we have shared over the twenty plus years we have been traveling together.

She is here, fragile and a bit confused, but she is here. And I am filled with gratitude.

On our last night, we go to the Copper Room. This resort dancing hangout's band, The Jones Brothers, has been playing old favorites for over 20 years while mostly aged dancers glide around the dance floor like teenagers, smooth and silky. Our littlest great granddaughter, transfixed by live music, conducts the orchestra from the chair as dancers swirl past. My mom leans over and tells me that on a night like this, her boyfriend and she danced the night away, she in a red dress and heels that he said made her look like a fairy princess. She tells me that when she walked back to her hotel, she heard that war had been declared, and she listened to the beat of horses' hooves on the cobblestones as a nation headed for war with America.

I watch her face as she watches the dancers through eyes almost devoid of vision and wonder of the memories that must swirl in her head. I think about my father, the love of her life gone now for almost fifty years; she has been so strong and independent and resolute in the face of life's difficulties. Nearly every moment of this trip has filled me to tears. Life, precious life, has kept her here long enough for me to heal, and in the absence of old resentments, deep love has taken root and flourished.

Perhaps these last few days have been so poignant because in dressing her the first day, I discovered something that has escaped her aging attention. A very large growth has taken residence in her chest. I see it; I palpitate it. It is hard as stone and terrifying. When I mention it to her as calmly as I can, she shrugs it off as though I had asked her about an insignificant mole. Perhaps it is best that way. And so we have been having mini adventures with her head free from worry and my heart overwhelmed by the thought of what road might lay ahead.

It is 1 am. She may forget her medications at times, but she remembers as she stumbles back from the bathroom feeling the wall for support that she needs to close the door so the light does not keep me awake. When I see her struggling with the covers, I get up and tuck her in. Her face is beautiful in the soft light.

I whisper in her ear, "You are the best mom ever."

I think back to our leaving the restaurant she longed for one last waltz, sure that she still had it in her. As we entered the lobby, the strains of the music following us out, I took her in my arms and we danced. "You have to let me lead," I tell her. She answers that all her dance partners have told her that and laughs. On her way out the door, she tells us all, "This has been my best visit ever."

I am undone.

Time waits for no man and death awaits us all. It should comfort me that these last twenty years of caring for her in some way or another have healed my heart and hers. She has become the mother I had always dreamed of in my childhood.

And so, in these early morning hours, I sit and type and hear the rustling of the covers as she seeks sleep. I think, perhaps, it is time to move over and give her a snuggle, knowing that the gesture will open the door to conversation and a flood of memories of 94 years of living.

Or perhaps I will just let her sleep, and I will sit in my solitary sorrow contemplating the nights that will lay ahead...

Whatever the choice, I know with certainty that this road contains only love, forgiveness and compassion, and I ask for God's strength to have at least a modicum of the courage she had shown in living out this precious gift of life.

And in this, her final dance, I will let her lead as the last song plays out, as she has always done.

  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

Someday I want to figure out how we came to be a country where old people get warehoused until they die. I have been thinking about this over the years as I have navigated the care of my now 92 year old mother, but more recently, because of a comment made by a twelve year old girl in my class.

I made some off hand comment about having a senior moment that must have sounded disparaging to her. She raised her hand and stated emphatically that I should not make negative comments about being older. "In my culture, " she said proudly, " you are considered wise and worthy of respect."

That is not a belief that resounds throughout our American culture. But there is something else that is dawning on me. Singer/songwriter Marty Axelrod, in his song, " 26 or 27", looks into the heart of all of us who are aging, which I believe includes everyone on the planet. He reflects on how though we are all aging and aged, in our hearts we cry out,"I'm about twenty six or twenty seven." We have retirement homes across the nation filled with people in walkers and various ailments and topped with grey hair or none at all...but in their hearts, like in mine and like in yours, we are all at some younger age when our limbs were agile and our bodies as strong as our spirits and our dreams.

Sitting in those rockers and wheelchairs there are vast untapped resources that if unleashed could change every corner of the universe. There are artists and writers and thinkers and mathematicians with gifts that go unnoticed and unused. What is lacking is a means to mobilize their gifts.

In this world where creative minds have designed ways to gather world citizens for micro loans in struggling communities and ways for all of us to tap into each other's lives through social media, there ought to be a way for valuable elderly citizens of our society to contribute in meaningful ways towards making the world a better place. A wheelchair, feeble fingers, and brittle bones should not exclude any of us from feeling valuable and leaving a legacy of lives lived out for the common good. Perhaps this is hitting me so strongly today because recently, The Pilgrims, a singing group that does benefit concerts to bring attention to a ministry that helps kids living on the streets of Seattle, did a holiday concert for fun at a retirement home. I watched as the residents shuffled or wheeled themselves into the dining hall for the concert. I watched their faces as the years fell away and smiles engulfed their faces as this men's chorus began to sing holiday favorites. I watched and imagined the lives each had lived, the stories contained in their hearts, the gifts that would remain unopened as they waited for their life on this earth to end. One resident left during "Jingle Bells". As she slowly and painfully maneuvered her walker past me, her lips mouthed the words to the song and a beautiful smile crossed her face. She caught my eyes in a glance and did a little skip jump, her eyes glittering with sweet mischief. I heard the words of Marty's song in my head, " I am about 26 or 27..."

Someday, I will be retired. And I vow not to go gently into that good night. I vow to do all I can to be part of an army of silver haired warriors working to our last breaths to leave this world a better place than we found it. Ours was a generation that carried signs and marched in the streets and sang vigorously and passionately about the injustices of our times. And ours was a generation that watched in amazement as the world listened and walls of prejudice and inequality began to crumble. Let us now be the generation that leaves no gift unopened or unused. Let us be the generation that never stopped giving ourselves over to the work of healing the world. Let us be the generation who shines light and love and hope into every corner of a hurting world until our time on this earth is done. And then, and only then, let us be the generation that takes a well-deserved rest.


Marty Axelrod sings “26 or 27”

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