Today I visited with 2 elderly women in a nursing home. One friend has pure white hair and the bluest of blue eyes. Lately when I stop by to see her she is asleep, so i have started leaving her a note so that she will know I have been there and that I am thinking of her.
This morning she woke up and stretched out her hand. Nothing needed to be said. We very simply held hands. Time passed like a gentle breeze and not a single word was exchanged.
Her verbal capacities are diminishing and she can barely stay awake, but there was an eloquence in the way our fingers intertwined and the lightness of her touch was ephemeral and solid at the same time. Perhaps it is because the moments when we connect with life are timeless really; never lost or undone. In a way they go on forever.
In the year I have known her this was perhaps the most tender and expressive time we've had together. Her hands are very thin now, her skin almost transparent, the bones in her arms more and more defined. But the connection was stronger than it has been when her body and her personality were more vibrant and we depended on conversation to make and sustain connection.
"I brought you a card today, in case you were sleeping when i got here", I told her after a while. "Let me do that", she said when i showed her the small envelope, then she carefully slipped the card out of its envelope. She did this slowly, intentionally, as if the moment was special. As if the movement of fingers and the touch of paper, mattered. Not as an action done daily, out of habit, or an activity to be taken for granted. What has she learned about present moment - living in bed this past year?
It was just a small, simple card made in India, light green handmade paper with an embossed peacock on it and a few lines of hello and I am thinking of you, a line about the way people seemed revived by the recent and very welcome rain, a comment on the activity of the birds outside her window, because I know she loves to watch them.
"Sit down", she said and motioned to the edge of her bed. She read the card very very slowly, stopping several times to raise her eyes and look at me. We'd sit a moment in silence, holding each other with our eyes, resting in each other's eyes. Then she would read the card again and suddenly she'd exhale deeply and drift into sleep.
I propped a pink pillow between her head and the metal rails of the hospital bed so she would be more comfortable, slipped the card from her hand, set in on her bedside table and went to leave. She opened her eyes again and we exchanged our ritual of blowing each other a kiss as I left.
The other elderly woman is blind now and this was just our second meeting. I introduced myself as I stepped into her room, so she wouldn't be startled. I let her know i am a friend of her daughter. She too wants a hand to hold and uses her other hand to run her fingers up and down the length of my arm.
"Don't let me fall", she says. "I won't let you fall," I tell her, "You are safe in bed."
"Where am I", "What do I do now?" "Where is my mother?" she asks. I answer and she repeats the questions. She has some dementia and will repeat these phrases again and again, unable to "shift" her attention from these concerns, no matter how many times I answer. It is kindest to help her "shift" her attention.
"I heard these songs yesterday," I tell her and sing "When the Saints Go Marching In" followed by "Amazing Grace". Not terribly original, but they are what came to mind.
"Yes, I know those, sing some more" she says.
It's not that I have a great singing voice, its simply that our senses are one way in which we receive the world. Touch and sound can fill the void left by this new absence of sight.
I know she often experiences vertigo, even lying on her back in bed. If I lift my hand from hers to adjust her blanket she grasps her hands tightly across her chest, as if to hold herself still, fixed in space.
We hold hands, she listens to the words of the songs and she relaxes. She is not alone. She shares space and time with another human being; a presence that she can both feel and hear.
It's lovely to know about each others lives, tell our stories and share our personal narratives, but sometimes a rich and precious depth of intimacy is reached in the moments when we very simply hold each others eyes or hands, knowing that nothing else is necessary. The moment is complete and we are not alone.
I leave the nursing home feeling a stillness at the core of my being that carries me through the day.
In holding I have been held.