This column by Kays Gary was originally published in The Charlotte Observer, June 5, 1977.
Feeling depressed? A little sorry for yourself?
Two small stories may alter the perspective.
The first came from a doctor, a Friday night dinner companion toying with his food.
It had been a long, tiring day with no disappointments. His most seriously ill patient survived surgery and yet the doctor was not swept with relief. It was another feeling, an awesome and humbling feeling, a feeling beyond these words that was not dismissable.
“The quality of gratitude,” he said, “or the quality of compassion some people own is, uh, something not easy to understand. You would think there is a limit.”
And bit by bit he spoke of his patient, an old man without family who had lost everything except 30 heartbeats a minute. Or so it seemed.
He lost a leg. Arteriosclerosis took his memory, his reasoning. He had long been blind. Congestive heart failure left him gasping with those 30 heartbeats a minute. Only a pacemaker could give him a measure of relief and life.
There was something about he old man, a gentle dignity, an indefinable quality of graciousness, whispered monosyllabic words of acceptance and trust and agreement that commanded life. Words liks “Yes,” “Thank you,” with a small and quivering smile.
The doctor was not sure the old man could understand anything about what was to be done, the risks. Reasoning blocked, eyes blinded, there were only repeated words, attempts at simple explanation of a complex condition. The old man could only smile and nod.
And so the surgery was done, the pacemaker implanted. The heartbeat was steady. In the recovery room, finally, the old man was conscious as the doctor stepped in.
His first words were: “I can see!”
“He knew we were trying to help him,” the doctor said. “That is all he understood. He didn’t want to disappoint us. He can’t see.”
The doctor was quiet again and I didn’t bother to press the matter even as a silent question began to grow:
Does the old man see in a way the rest of us cannot?
Lettie M. Gary is 81, her life spun out in loving and teaching children and her own small family. Like the old man, never a complaint had she and never once a martyr. Her dinner plate commanded only chicken wings. Best pieces were for others.
I went to college on Mama’s chicken wings and her make-do in restyling old clothes and reupholstering old furniture. Yet, in beauty and graciousness, she could impress any company.
And so it remained even when, some years ago, the hardened arteries took all but those qualities and commandments of simple presence.
Sometimes, when the faded blue eyes glimmer with smiling recognition, I wonder how much is still there, because she no longer has words enough. Nor have I.
Then came a fright on Friday afternoon. She’d had a fall and suffered a deep, ugly and profusely bleeding cut over her right eye. Yet, through all the experience of being lifted in and out of cars and being carried to the hospital for injections and stitches, her demeanor was as serene as if guests had dropped in for tea.
Was it possible that Mama, finally, no longer thought or felt anything?
The silent question was answered as I pushed her wheelchair through the hospital’s parting electric doors.
The wheelchair went through smoothly but I stumbled and bumped my knee.
Mama said, “Ouch!”