The shades of the small room with the parking lot view were drawn and the stale air of the nursing home stopped me in my tracks at the doorway. I looked at the familiar knickknacks that godmother Martha has chosen to surround herself with here in what is sure to be the last place she lives. I think perhaps it is a blessing that she has lost her sight. At least she can't see how the dim light in this place renders the remnants of her many past homes faded, tatty and lifeless.
My eyes shift to Martha in her chair. At 86 she has become frail and brittle. The arthritis she has struggled with for half a century has immobilsed her body and put permanent deep, dark circles of pain under her eyes. Sitting motionless in her chair, her short shock of white hair is combed back with a pouf at the front. It looks a little like a greaser haircut or a waterfall in the vernacular of the fifties. To complete the look she is wearing a pair of wraparound sunglasses that someone has brought for her to help keep the whispery shadows she still sees to a minimum.
As I bend over to give her a hug I say, "Gee Martha, you look pretty cool with your shades and slicked back hair."
Martha replies in her lingering Lancashire accent, "Oh, yes the aides have been telling me I look like Elvis. I told them there is only one difference between me and Elvis."
"What's that, Martha?"
"I'm not dead yet."
Of course I laugh. In my heart, though, I am thinking Martha is right to remind the world she is not dead yet. In a society obsessed with material goods, speed and productivity Martha seems disposable. The dominant view of Martha is of an elderly, infirm, blind, unhappy woman. Some might even speculate she would be better off dead. And Martha herself, now housed in the last place she ever wanted to be, sometimes shares this speculation. But what about the world she will leave behind. Will it be better off?
I think not. You see, when Martha leaves this world she'll take a potent but invisible force with her: the force of caring. Martha does not know it, but she has been a premier resource for caring in the town where she lives. Her impairments, vulnerabilities and stubbornness have been catalysts for kindness to blossom and a neighbourhood to be reborn.
Let me explain how what is least valued about Martha has unleashed what is most valuable. Prior to entering the nursing home Martha lived alone on the second floor of her two-storey home. She moved painstakingly with her walker between her bedroom and kitchen. She never went outside because of the stairs, except when carried to an ambulance, which happened occasionally.
It was obvious that Martha should move. The situation was untenable. Everyone from her faraway family to her neighbours and even her doctor and banker (who both, after all, had to make house calls) was in agreement. She should move. Everyone, that is, except Martha, whose infamous stubbornness took on mythical proportions in this matter. Combined with her often tactless way of brushing people off and lack of gratitude for support that was offered, it would have been understandable if the neighbours had remained in their homes. They could have washed their hands of her; after all, they had no ties or professional duties to bind them to Martha.
But they didn't. Instead they brought her books and sweets. They kept an eye out for anyone around her place who shouldn't be. They brought over turkey and the fixings on holidays (even though she made it clear she used to be able to do a better job of roasting the turkey herself). After awhile they started to organise get-togethers at Martha's house because after all, she couldn't get to theirs. They began to get to know each other at these events. They found when they bumped into each other in town or on the street there was always something to talk about, a story about Martha, a shared chuckle at one her jokes or worries about her health. While they often cursed her stubbornness and demanding nature they rarely failed to acknowledge how inspired they were by her spirit and feistiness in face of the hardships life had dealt her. As her challenges grew over the years so did the relationships among her neighbours.
When the time finally came when even Martha herself could no longer hold onto the dream of living on her own, one of her neighbours said how relieved she was but also how sad she was to see Martha leave. "You see," she told me, "she is the neighbourhood."
It was because of Martha that her street had turned into a neighbourhood. Because of Martha's needs, her neighbours were called to be patient and inventive. Because of her cantankerous spirit, her neighbours were invited to be hospitable and gracious. Because of her humour, they were reminded of human resilience. Because of her stubbornness, her neighbours entered into her home and each other's lives.
It seems to me that we need people like Martha, people who can be difficult, often needy and seemingly hard to love. They are like alchemists unleashing the potent force that often lies dormant within us, the force of caring. In the dark cast by the shadow of violence, materialism and environmental destruction that we live in today, this profound contribution provides a welcome light on the path to reclaiming our humanity.
Since moving into the nursing home Martha has refused to leave her room to dine with everyone else. It is no surprise or secret to anyone who'll listen, she doesn't like the food! Her former neighbours have, of course, been visiting. Before long they set up a rotating meal system between them so Martha is now putting on weight. As for Martha, well, she doesn't realise she is a portal to others knowing the world differently. How could she? She's too busy being the neighbourhood.
Martha is a modern day alchemist. She is transforming the icy spaces between people into golden pathways of human warmth and affection. When she and others on the margins of our society come into relationship they teach us to see things differently, to open our hearts and respond to our hospitable impulses. In each of our communities and neighbourhoods there are people like Martha waiting to work their magic, to make their contributions, to help us remember who we really are. All we need to do is get to know them well enough that they offer up their gifts.
Our growing loneliness, this losing touch and feeling disconnected from one and other, is a profound issue for our time. Caring relationships are at the heart of everything that is healthy and human. Like the infant separated from its mother, people wither and die without supportive relationships. As a species we are interdependent. The quality of our relationships is fundamental to our individual physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, the health of our family life, the safety of our communities and the vibrancy of our societies.
It is fair to suggest that our relationships with one another also lie at the heart of the survival of our planet. For it is through our human interconnections that we are reminded that we are a part of the web of life on earth. We are responsible for each other as well as ourselves. In the end, these will be our individual and collective legacies: who we loved and who loved us.