Seeing The Old Through a Glass, Darkly

Henry Snively Campbell 2012

I almost titled this blog post, “I See Old People.”

One of the most beautiful and painful aspects of spending a lot of time with someone as they near the end of life is to glimpse life through their lens. To watch my Dad’s face as he drank in the view off my back deck — a vista of one redwood tree that commanded his attention — was to experience a bit of heaven on earth. His face softened, the corners of his mouth tilted upward, and the expressive wrinkles around his eyes contracted every so slightly. Minutes passed as he gazed across the yard. He communed with the natural beauty before him. Poetry sprang to his lips.

When we were out in the community, however, I became aware of how others viewed him. Or rather, didn’t view him.

At restaurants, in the grocery store, out on the bike trail, I could see people’s eyes take me in, dart over to the attractive young people in the vicinity, and skate over Dad. One of the smartest men I know was assumed to be either an imbecile or ugly. When he made a witty remark, as he often did, they didn’t get it. They weren’t listening. I thought he was hilarious. When they looked at him, they saw the walker, the wrinkles and the funny lump on his forehead. I thought he was handsome.

In articulating his vision of the church, I am heartened to see that Pope Francis calls out three groups as particularly important to the people of God: the poor, the unemployed young, and the old (source: republicca.it).

“The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don’t even look for them any more. They have been crushed by the present. You tell me: can you live crushed under the weight of the present? Without a memory of the past and without the desire to look ahead to the future by building something, a future, a family? Can you go on like this? This, to me, is the most urgent problem that the Church is facing.”

I’m not Catholic, but I am with the Pope when it comes to being pained by the loneliness of the old.

Not everyone is in a position to offer care and companionship to an old person. But everyone is in a position to see them, and in coming face to face, to recognize the bit of God that is in all of us, especially the very old, who have seen so much of life.

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