Brian Kraemer is an old and dear friend of mine. We have exchanged many warm e-mail messages over the years. And once I was lucky enough to meet him when he visited me. He was ostensibly here to relieve me of the burden of many of my books, but actually we used the occasion to get to know each other more deeply. After that, I read a couple of his autobiographical books, and through them, I came to know even more about his personal and spiritual life. To me, Brian is a great and wise man with a beautiful soul and a loving heart. So, yes, I have come to think very highly of Brian and treasure his friendship.
He is also a faithful reader of my blogs and almost always finds the time to comment on them very thoughtfully. Moreover, usually he is able to find some way to connect the themes of my blogs to his personal life.
Such was the case when he read my most recent blog, “Being Mortal While Being Immortal,” in which I spent some time discussing the horrors of most conventional nursing homes and other institutions where people at the end of their lives languish until they are finally released from the trials of their body.
Brian, it turns out, has spent many years in such settings, and I was so moved by his account of some of his experiences in them that I asked his permission to share his story with you.
Here is what he wrote me today:
When I was seventeen, I was driving a tractor through an almond orchard here in northern California. It was August, hot, dusty, miserable, and noisy. I hated it. I remember the moment I said to God, "What is worth doing in life because this 'aint it!" I heard as clearly as I'm writing now, "Go visit the seniors in the retirement homes." I had no idea what I was doing so I bought some stationery in case anyone wanted to dictate a letter to a loved one. I asked to borrow the car and drove to Chico. In those days, there were no rules or policies about entering such a convalescent hospital which is where I started. I just walked in and made my way to the first door with a resident. "Hi. My name is Brian Kraemer. I'm here to visit people. Would you like to visit?" The elderly woman immediately invited me to sit down and we became good friends.
Thus began a now forty-one-year love affair with seniors. I have enjoyed several thousand grandmas and grandpas, mostly grandmas because the grandpas die earlier, but I have adopted many of them and they me. I play piano for them. I listen to them. I ask them questions. I treat them with the love and respect they deserve. I remind them that they are the same women and men they've always been even when they can't speak anymore, can't hear well, see well, control their own bowel functions. They are the same amazing human beings with profound life stories and I want them to know that I know this is true. I have seen many tears as I do nothing more than reassure them that they are the same person they've always been.
I remember one gentleman whose wife was talking baby talk to him because he had a stroke and she thought he had lost his mental faculties. When she wasn't around, I reminded him of all the amazing things he had done for others and I knew he was the same man and understood everything I was saying. Though he couldn't talk, tears flowed down his face as I did nothing other than reassure him of my own understanding of his wholeness in a broken body.
I have had so many seniors, disabled by strokes, pound on the arm of their wheelchairs after each song I play on the piano. They want me to know that they appreciate me and they appreciate the memories that these old tunes from the thirties, forties, fifties, and so on bring back. "Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me..." These seniors may look terribly ragged in these aging bodies, but they are the same imaginative five-year-olds, playful teenagers, voluptuous young adults, and so on that they've ever been. They haven't lost anything. This is the thing we need to remember more than anything else. Though they are becoming physically feebler and feebler, they are adding experience after experience and literally becoming more whole. A ninety-four-year-old woman is not just ninety-four. She is every age, every moment of every age, she has ever been all at once. When we behold a ninety-four-year-old woman we are beholding a gold mine of experience and knowledge and wisdom. The wise search for the gold in there and these seniors love being simply seen for the richness of who they are.
I have to share one more story before I go...I was in my early twenties and I had been visiting these senior centers and convalescent homes for a few years. A nurse asked me if I would visit a particular woman who she said "was not doing well."
I walked into the room and this elderly woman was whimpering like a frightened animal. She had an oxygen mask on her face and she just kept making this whimpering sound like she was so afraid. I walked up to her and said, "Hi. My name is Brian. I come to this home to visit people. May I visit with you?" She nodded her head yes and I stood at her bedside telling her a little about where I grew up nearby and why I was there.
She couldn't talk, but obviously she understood everything that was going on. I asked her, "May I pray for you?" She nodded her head yes. I put my hand on her hand and said a simple little prayer, nothing particularly religious or flowery, just simple, "God, please bless this woman and help her to not be afraid. Please take good care of her and help her feel better." That was it, short, sweet, sincere, from a child basically. I then asked if it was okay for me to sing a few songs for her. Again, she nodded yes. I sang "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know," "Jesus Loves the Little Children," "In the Garden," anything I could remember by heart and while I did so, I knew it was the right thing to do to run my fingers through the hair on her forehead. I sang and just kept running my fingers through her hair. She closed her eyes and got that look that cats get when they are petted. Within a few minutes, her breathing got quieter and quieter and she fell asleep.
I stopped at the front desk and told them that she was asleep now and I would come back in the morning to find out how she was doing. When I returned the next day, I was told that she had "passed in her sleep." I still get tears in my eyes when I think about that precious time she and I had together in the closing hours of her life. I cannot tell you how meaningful those moments were when two human beings met together in a sacred moment and were kind to each other. I hope to God, and I mean it, I hope to God that someone walks into my room, prays for me, sings to me, holds my hand, and runs his or her fingers through my hair when I am on that final journey into further realms of adventure.
I think it's so important to trust that so much is going on for all of us all the time that we don't even begin to understand or appreciate the wonder of it all. When someone is in that final transitional period we call "dying" it is entirely possible, I think even likely, that that person is being nurtured, held, supported, guided, comforted by beings other than ourselves. We have midwives in this realm. I believe with my whole heart that they have midwives in other realms as well and these midwives help us through the process of first inverting, flipping over in the uterus, and then beginning the process of transition. We will soon ask ourselves, "Why was I so afraid?" We have done this infinite times and will continue to do so. "You must be born again," Jesus said. I think he may have meant exactly what he said. "You must be born again."