One of the things I’ve come to believe with my whole heart is that the messages we most need to hear come to us when we most need to hear them . . . as long as we keep an open mind and heart.
I was reminded of this truth again last week.
You see I was feeling stressed and was wound very tight. I worried, was I writing my novel fast enough? Would it ever get published? If it got published, would anyone read it? And, so on . . .
I am an eighth level master at manufacturing stress. I might appear ‘go-with-the-flow’ on the outside, but I so am not.
So, last Wednesday at the height of my stress spiral I packed up my laptop (and my anxiety) and headed off to my local coffee shop, because what calms nerves better than a triple espresso, right?
Shortly after opening my novel file I looked up to see a familiar face. This is not unusual in a town of 20,000 people, especially after living here for almost 20 years. But, this was a face I hadn’t seen in a few months and when I asked him how he was doing I received the slightly enigmatic response of, “Well, how much do you want to know?”
I answered in my customary way, “I want to know as much as you want to share with me.”
He pulled out the chair opposite me, looked me in the eye and said calmly, “I’m about halfway into my journey with Alzheimer’s.” Immediately tears began inching their way up my throat. This man had been instrumental in guiding my husband toward his path, toward the career he has and loves today. He was, and is, important in our lives – and important to the thousands of students he touched through his long career as a professor. “I’m sorry” was all I could push out.
And then it happened; he said the most amazing thing. “Don’t be,” he said, still not breaking my eye contact, “I’m maybe the happiest I’ve been in my life.” And, I believed him. He seemed filled with acceptance and peace. But, I couldn’t help wonder if I, the eighth level stress master, would handle this diagnosis with the same dignity and class?
He continued, “There are no longer any expectations of me. I can simply live every day and experience every moment.” He explained that he and his wife (of 54 years) have all their affairs in order and that some days were still very good (like the day he was talking to me) and other days it felt like his brain was full of mud. The pit in my stomach grew. How difficult must this be? This man, who is approaching 80, has a PhD in Chemistry and built his life around the capacity of his mind. And, now it’s slipping away.
“You know, I spent my life teaching and doing research, performing really, and now I just am.” I know there has probably been months, or even years, of getting to this place of calmness. Calmness that has probably replaced the denial, anger, and sadness that came after the diagnosis. But still, the words and emotions he was sharing that day sunk in.
I needed this reminder. I needed something to remind me that when I am swirling in stress and not living in the moment I am denying myself love and laughter that may never come again in the same way. And I wondered, could we all stop performing for others and just be ourselves? Would we all be happier?
Eventually he moved back to his own table and the gentleman that was waiting for him, but I couldn’t bring my concentration back. My heart hurt for him, his wife, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and the mighty journey they are on.
But even more than that, I felt deeply grateful. He may not know it, but he’s still teaching — and I want to let him know, “Message received, old friend, message received.”