I was just visiting a friend who’s been recovering from surgery at a residence that takes care of the infirm and elderly. There was a party in full swing in the reception area as I was leaving. There were walkers and crutches and wheelchairs all around, as a cheery Ella Fitzgerald (on the sound system) lifted the mood. Everyone moved very slowly. I felt very sprightly for a 50-year-old.
As I carefully wended my way through the throng, I came face-to-face with a senior man in a wheelchair. He was Caucasian with long white hair, still tall. I smiled as I walked and he looked at me and said, “I haven’t seen you for a long time.”
He apparently mistook me for someone else, but there seemed to be no need to correct the error. So I stopped, and he smiled back, with bright blue eyes and a row of small and crooked teeth.
He said, “I’ve had pneumonia for six months.”
” I’m sorry to hear that,” I replied.
“They say I won’t walk again.”
We looked at each other; he raised two hands palm up and shrugged. There was nothing for me to say.
” I’m 94….”
My eyebrows went up. I couldn’t remember the last time I had met anyone with that length of life behind them. And then, still looking directly at me, he added quietly:
“….I’m ready to go.”
And with that, not waiting for a reply or reaction, he wheeled off in his chair. I couldn’t help, but put my hand on his shoulder as he moved on; not so much for comfort, but acknowledgment.
The whole interaction spanned less than 30 seconds, but it had taken a lifetime for him(31,536,000 seconds give or take), and I, to meet at that moment. Only a few words were exchanged, but they carried more weight than most conversations.
In the space between our few words, something more profound had emerged. One could say that man shared what he did because he thought I was someone else. It’s quite possible. And yet I’m reminded that it is in the witnessing and not reacting that people feel safe in sharing what they really want to say. It’s in the accepting of who they are in that moment without pity, or fawning, that we can receive what they have to say.
This may well be our deepest desire as human beings in a too busy world, to be truly listened to without judgment.
I’d recently finished reading Frank Ostaseski’s marvelous and moving book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, which I cannot recommned enough. I was reminded of something he wrote:
“Listen generously, as if the other person has all of the resources that they need inside of them.… It’s not even important that you understand. Imagine your listening presence is enough, exactly what is needed.”
Those words rang true for my experience. There can be a tendency to grandiosity in these moments, that in witnessing someone’s revelation, we somehow have agency in it. That we were “there for them,” and so we get a badge of honor. But if we can drop all that, then we are just left as a witness. And, as I discovered, in that witnessing itself, there is a boundless gift.