A few years back, as I was sitting with a family preparing for a funeral service, a thought took hold with regard to our opinions and perceptions of “old people.”
When I was visiting with these folks and reminiscing about their uncle, they produced a picture of him in his Army uniform- young, bright-eyed, handsome, full of vim and vigor. It was the same person who now had encountered the inexorable process of aging and had finally run out of gas.
I guess it made me think about how easily we can dismiss the elderly as one-dimensional burdens, as “used up,” having done their thing and run their course, with nothing more to contribute, no stories to tell, just waiting to die.
The thing is that when we don’t make the effort, all we see is the broken down, worn out versions of people who were every bit as vital and vibrant as us. They were young once, too. We are often oblivious to the people they used to be and in important ways continued to be.
Which isn’t to say that some folks haven’t lead more interesting lives than others. This particular gentleman was a paratrooper with the Army 17th Airborne Division in Europe during WWII. That in itself deserves a closer look. Except I guess he never talked about his war experience. Why is that, by the way? Are they sworn to secrecy, too humble to toot their own horns, or the memories too painful to recount?
Anyway, I had an epiphany of sorts, made a connection I had sort of made before. But for some reason it had never coalesced until these arrangements were in process. I sensed the continuity- that this man who had succumbed to the aging process was the same man who jumped out of airplanes in enemy territory, walked everywhere, knew the taxonomy of the trees and bushes around his house, built brick walls, wielded a chainsaw, ate kale, taught himself how to play the guitar, taught the younger generations about life, and let wasps land on his arms.
What we see in nursing homes and other “care” facilities are only snippets of bigger pictures and often fuller lives that we can only begin to appreciate through the photo collages displayed at the calling hours, or the stories shared among family and friends.
The graveside service for this man included military honors- a flag-draped casket, Taps, the folding of the flag and presentation of it to next of kin with the words, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” This gets me every time. You can hear a pin drop. Such a fitting tribute.
Although, I have to admit to cringing a bit when he said, “On behalf of the President of the United States…” Talk about cheapening the moment.
Like Trump cared. Or that I considered him our President.