Norm was the first person I met that never remembered me. I would reintroduce myself to the same bewildered look of curiosity on his face as he’d question who I am and what I was doing there. Initially breaking my heart, as I couldn’t conceive the reasoning behind an experience like that falling into someone’s life. He soon changed my sympathy into appreciation, for I noticed his gift which laid behind my judgements of the situation at first.
He was always present in the moment, taking it in for what it was. Without anchor and chain to yesterday holding him back from fully appreciating today. And my God was he a friendly and playful young man as he pushed 85. He would count his exercises out loud using different toned voices that echoed through the halls. As he sounded off through the count, there was not one second that he broke eye contact with me. For he was always looking for my laughter or smile in return. He truly enjoyed making people laugh and promoted a light-hearted energy about the space he occupied.
As I would watch him interact with the other residents, he always did so with a friendly: ‘Hello, how are you?’ while taking the time out of what he was doing to give them full eye contact and open-hearted conversation in the case they were willing or able. The first few times he excitedly greeted someone during our session, I watched with a bit of envy as he apparently remembered that person, but fails to remember my face and witty humour. Not really, but I did ask him who that person was after he got out of earshot. Norm just looked at me and, with a half chuckle, he lightly said: ‘I don’t know’ with a look on his face like I had just asked a silly question.
I loved it. I talk to strangers all the time. It’s the highlight of my days, honestly. The small crossing of paths which spark up a brief moment of shared experience in conversation with a complete stranger. It’s one of those humanly beautiful things that prove our familiarity.
I ask all my clients, who are seasoned vets in this human experience called life on Earth, a very important question. So the day came when I was going to ask Norm.
We were taking a break from our walk outside. Sitting squeezed together on a quite small wooden bench that brought us hip to hip, and closer than we’d ever been. Because Norm had insisted I not take the other seat right next to it, as someone may come along and decide they’d like to take a seat with us.
We were looking out onto the cascade of mountains in the backdrop of Palm Desert, California, as we escaped the sunny desert heat for a moment of shade in the gazebo behind his memory care facility. This is where my friend shared the greatest piece of advice I heard yet.
As we both stared off into the mountain and blue sky, I asked him: ‘If you had one piece of advice for living a happy and quality life, what would it be?’
His response came after a brief taking in of the question while never breaking our gazes from the mountain: ‘Just keep walking.’
Norm loved walking. So much so, that in fact, it was often his response when I would say that I’m there to take him to exercise. He would let me know he knows he doesn’t need to exercise with me, he’s already walked today.
Walking. Such a simple ability of our body, yet hard to truly be grateful for that feature until something happens where you lose mobility in a leg.
He continued after a brief pause: ‘Just walk and look at all the things around you.’ As he pointed to some pink and purple flowers on the side of the sidewalk. ‘But you should always try to walk with someone else too. I mean what’s the point of seeing all this stuff, if you can’t talk about it with someone? It’s kind of lonely ya know?’
I had about a softball-sized knot in my throat that I had to swallow back for my response to take the place of just bawling. The beauty in that strikes me as I write the words and see the story in my mind. For that is something so simple. We do it every day in our life, although most times without attention to the fact we are doing it. And I began bringing attention to my walking, the environment around me, and the people I would talk to as I walked to and from on my day’s routes.
I had a full new life. In the same life that I had been living this whole time. A brand new opportunity to see what was really in front of me. Not thinking about where to go, what was on the docket for the day, or some financial responsibility I had approaching. I was fully engaged in my life, each moment and every conversation. It was like the flood gates opened to what I couldn’t hear before. All my daily people were giving me gold and it was only at the grace of my ability to listen without wondering thoughts or half attention elsewhere.
Being 100% in the present, while sharing the moment to express between you and another person is what truly is beautiful in this whole reality. The gift of expression. And the gift of sharing that gift.
So now I’m sharing that gift with you. Engaging in your day, no matter what you think of the activities or who is there with you sharing it. There is something waiting for you in that moment if you just allow your preconceived notions, ideas of how it’s going to be, how it’s supposed to be, or wandering thoughts on what you have to do later. You will find the goldmine of treasure the universe had been putting in front of you this whole time, only missed by inches and seconds as our attention is torn in every which way.
James Edward Rawson is a mental health advocate.