I had a long day. The night before I got no sleep as I took a young man to the hospital who attempted to take his own life. I stayed with him in the emergency room and then transported him to an in-patient hospital where he could be safe for a few days. Not having much sleep the next night brought me to this day. I took care of my household needs, some family needs, and then made my way back to the hospital for the two hour visit with him.
I sat in the waiting area about 30 minutes before the allotted visitation time and watched the people go by. I noticed an elderly lady sitting all by herself in the middle of the waiting area, watching television, and managing to smile at every person that walked past her. I believed her to be a kind soul, with many stories, and strength.
I observed another lady, about the same age; sit near her and after a few moments they realized they knew each other from business dealings fifteen years earlier. They had a wonderful time catching up with one another.
I will call the first lady Gracie just to make the story easier. Gracie told her friend that she was waiting for her husband to come out of surgery. She told the story of how they met and it brought a tear to my eye.
It was 1950 and she had just gotten engaged to the love of her life when he got called to active duty to fight in the Korean War. Three years went by and communication with him had come to a halt. No letters, no calls and any inquiries she made came back empty. She wasn’t sure if he had just changed his mind or had been killed. She said she made the assumption he was lost in battle. A couple years went by and she did eventually marry and had five children. In 2008 she lost her husband.
During the funeral of her husband there was a volunteer at the funeral home helping to guide people to where they needed to be. His eyes gave him away instantly and he immediately recognized her smile. They embraced and the truth was revealed: he was the man she thought was lost in a battle in Korea. The got together about a month after the funeral and renewed their friendship. Two years later they wed.
He had been shot and got lost through the hospital system and did not make it home until a year after the conflict had ended.
I wanted to hear more but it was time for me to go check in and complete my visitation for the night. As I got up I was compelled to stop by the two ladies and say something. I approached them and apologized for interrupting their conversation and told them I overheard their stories and was so moved that I needed to tell them. I told them their conversation and their smiles had blessed me and they were almost as giddy as two school girls! They smiled and thanked me and as I walked away I heard Gracie say, “What an unexpected surprise that was”.
When the time comes that I begin to enter the autumn of my years I pray that some young person might come along and thank me for something as simple as story-telling or just smiling.
Solomon tells his son to “…respect your mother when she is old…” Christ mentioned that the Pharisees had made the law of God void by their disgraceful treatment of the elderly. Even Elihu, the younger of Job’s friends waited patiently to speak to Job until all the men who were older than he was had spoken. Leviticus 19:32 says “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly.”
Throughout cultures and beliefs the treatment and respect for the aging is clear. In the practice of Confucian, filial piety is one of the primary virtues to be held above everything else: a respect for parents and ancestors. This filial piety is reflected in the book of the same title, a conversation between Confucius and his student, Zeng Shen. It addresses how to set up a good society and that the practice of respecting the elders is key to this success. The term ‘filial’ is used in Christian churches for the titles of particular clerics whose church is subordinate to one that is larger (filial priest or filial vicar). In the most general of terms, filial piety simply means to be good to one’s parents. In the Chinese culture it is considered the first virtue.
In China it is widely accepted that Buddha rose to heaven to spend three months with his mother, teaching her his new ideas; an act of proper concern and respect. The “Sutra on the Weighty Grace of Parents” was written in the early Tang dynasty (618-907) and talks about the great sacrifices that a parent must make for the sake of their children. Children are expected to return this kindness though loyalty and respect. Although this particular text would later be determined fraudulent, the message remains strong and truth-filled.
The overall world-wide view of the treatment of the elderly in America is that we tend to consider them a burden and will quickly place them in care facilities. Whether or not this is an act reflective of the selfish nature of some western civilizations or just a misunderstanding of the child-parent relationship is inconsequential – the fact is that it should force us to closely exam how we treat our older family members.
The commandment to honor thy father and mother is one that deserves close study. It would serve everyone well to make a list of the ways we can honor our parents and elderly and to begin putting them in to practice today.
The goal of this life-journey is to be in union with God in the beatific vision. The characteristic condition of old age could be an occasion for spiritual transformation and transcendence - for acknowledging the fundamental truth of the human condition, our dependence on God and on his love and mercy. The frailty and dependency of old age, in our Christian past, were understood both as belonging to the given order of life - as inescapable in character - and as having a positive role in disposing us to the fulfillment for which we were made by deepening our awareness of our dependence on God.