There once was a family that lived in a cabin: a man and his wife, their son and daughter, and the man’s father. They ate dinner together every night.
As grandfather got older, he had difficulty at the table. Some of his food would fall to the floor and he’d occasionally break a dish. The father grew frustrated, and admonished grandpa to be more careful. Grandpa continued to struggle.
One day the boy went into the work shed and noticed his father was carving something out of wood. He asked his father what he was making.
“A bowl and a spoon for grandfather,” he said. “I’m tired of him making a mess at the table. I’m going to have him sit in the corner to eat his dinner, using these.”
That night, the man told grandpa the new arrangement. He showed him the bowl and spoon, put his dinner portion in the bowl, and led him over to the corner of the room where he’d set a small table and chair. The family ate dinner that night in peace.
A few days later, the father noticed his son in the work shed. He walked in and saw the son with the carving knife working on a piece of wood.
“What are you making?” he asked.
“A bowl and spoon for you when you are older,” the son said.
I heard this story decades ago and I’ve never forgotten it.
Clearly, the story illustrates how caring for older people can become a challenge, testing our patience as we focus on our own lives. And if we live long enough, what will it feel like to be a burden and potentially be placed “out of the way?”
For me the story raises complicated issues that I think many of us encounter.
My mother had a severe stroke at age 75. She lingered for ten days. Her sudden death was a shock. But we all knew she would have preferred it to spending months or years being frail and confined.
Dad lived to be 91. He spent 89 of those years in Redlands and San Bernardino. When he was no longer able to live on his own, we were able to get him into an Assisted Living unit in Redlands for several years. At first it worked well, as friends and former associates would stop by to visit. But in time they became infirm themselves, or forgot about him, or died.
I drove down one day to visit him. They told me he was in the dining room finishing his lunch. I went and saw he was the last one there, sitting by himself and using a fork as best he could to eat two fish sticks.
My sisters and I transferred him to a well-respected nursing home in Santa Barbara so we could all be closer. He endeared himself to the staff with his wit, irreverence, and stories from World War 2. He appreciated seeing us more often. But he had always been an independent man, propelling his Oldsmobile 88 around town and favoring restaurants where waitresses greeted him by name as he came through the door. He never wanted to live a restricted life or be a burden to anyone. He had been a “somebody”, and now that identity was gone, and he was dependent on others.
We brought him to our houses for meals and holidays. But it became harder and harder to transfer him in and out of a car.
One Sunday I was leaving after a visit. He looked at me and said, “Get me out of here.” I told him I couldn’t. He followed me down the hall in his wheelchair, and after I closed the glass door behind me, he kicked it several times. I will always remember that sound.
As death approached, we took turns at this bedside. He died knowing we loved him and were proud of him.
We had his memorial service back in San Bernardino, where he’d been a prominent and active citizen. If he’d died ten or fifteen years earlier, there might have been a big crowd. But, outside of family, there were less than a dozen people.
Does this sound like anything you’ve experienced or are facing?
Did I, at some point, hand dad his wooden bowl and spoon? Is that what our society does to our seniors? Is that will happen to us if we live that long?
While longevity is something to be prized, we know it often comes with some serious challenges. So many parishioners I’ve known make it to old age and are publicly celebrated. But in private, they confide they are “done,” and “don’t know why the Lord is keeping me here.”
I’m haunted by the loneliness I’ve seen.
So, what do we do?
I’m guessing we all are inclined to honor and show respect to “older people” wherever we encounter them — in our neighborhoods, in stores, in public gatherings – anywhere our paths cross. They deserve it.
I have the privilege of leading a monthly worship service at a local retirement home. As has always been my experience, the people I meet there have lived amazing lives.
No one wants to become a burden to their family, and there are many steps we can take to insure that doesn’t happen – estate planning, honest discussions with our family about what we want and don’t want and being realistic about our hopes and limitations.
I searched the internet for any other versions of this story and found one. It has a different ending. After the son tells the father what he is carving, the father brings grandpa back to the table, and they live happily ever after. Nicer ending. Too nice, I think. I believe the story I remember stuck with me because the challenge it poses is what I need to hear.
What thoughts and feelings arise for you when you read “Grandpa and the Wooden Bowl?”
Image: “Wooden Bowl and Spoon,” folksy.com
Two prior blog posts are related to today’s theme: , a) for a simple list of meaningful themes to talk about with someone nearing the end of their life — “Six Things that Matter Most,” go to: https://wordpress.com/post/drjsb.com/357; b) for a Buddhist perspective on visiting nursing homes, go to https://drjsb.com/2020/12/17/siddhartha-visits-a-nursing-home/