Ahead of Yourself
Joseph was in a hurry, always. For as long as he could remember, people would comment that he was in a rush. He could not help it. When he was a little boy he daydreamed about what it would be like to be bigger, and he always asked to play with the older kids. When he got to grade school, he wanted to be in middle school. When he turned ten, he wanted to be twelve. When he got to college he wanted to be working. When he was working, he dreamt incessantly of retirement. He always lived in the next, anticipated moment.
On a rainy night, with plans for the future and longing to be somewhere else, Joseph took a turn too tight and he wrapped his car around a tree. Luckily, he escaped with his life and some injuries that required a couple weeks of hospitalization. From the day he arrived on the ward he asked the doctors and nurses nonstop when he would be discharged, when he could go back to work, when the physical therapy people would come.
He shared his room with an elderly gentleman who seemed to always be sucking hard on an oxygen mask and struggling to cough up phlegm. The old man had few visitors, and those that did show up came infrequently and seemed to be more concerned about his space in the convalescent home where he lived than they were about his health. Joseph was surprised when, after a week of barely saying two words, the old man waved to him after Joseph had just finished peppering the nurse with questions about what he had to do to get out of the hospital.
“If you don’t mind me saying, you seem anxious to blow this joint.”
The old man was smiling while indicating the door with a gnarled thumb.
“Well, don’t you want to get back to your life also?” Joseph waved in disgust at the confining, sterile, pale blue walls, the tinted windows that did not open, and the heavy tarpaulin like blackout curtains.
The old man coughed and wheezed a bit before choking out his answer. “Oh, son. I’m not leaving here.” He took a deep agonized breath from his oxygen mask and added, “This is my last stop before the big sleep.”
Joseph was distressed by all this frank talk of death. He felt sad for the old guy.
“Look is it really that bad? Surely you could get better. Are you so anxious to die?”
“No, son. But, everyone has a time. I know mine is close.”
They sat in silence for a few moments while the old man took several labored breaths and Joseph grappled with what to say next.
Then the old man pulled the mask away from his face and said, “Look here. I don’t have a lot of time, so … I can tell you’re someone who gets ahead of himself. I bet you are always looking to be two or three years older on each birthday. And you probably think ahead to what you will do next while you are trying finish what you are doing now.”
Joseph felt vaguely uncomfortable with this sudden interrogation but still managed to retort, “Isn’t that the way to get ahead, to constantly look to the next thing?”
The forcefulness of the old guy’s reply startled Joseph.
The old man repeated, “No!” And then went on to say, “You are just getting ahead of yourself. I did that. And you know what? I did it till I was about fifty-five. Always looking ahead, impatient to get older. And guess what happened then?”
Joseph shrugged and said, “A…you couldn’t wait to be fifty-six?”
“No. I started wishing I was younger. I began to feel anxious to be younger and I longed for the days when I was filled with boundless energy and had a strong body, with the ability to heal almost overnight from illnesses and injuries.”
He was wracked with a terrible cough and Joseph hobbled over to his bedside and patted the old man’s back while the withered body shook and spasmed with pain. After taking several breaths through the mask, the old man continued.
“I longed for the strength of youth. I looked back more than I looked forward and it was only year ago that I realized something. I realized that I have spend most of my life living in the past and living in the future, but never in the present. I have only been present for these past few months. Don’t wait till you are at the end of your life to enjoy each moment.”
“But I don’t think I can stop myself from looking ahead and back. It’s how I improve and measure my progress.”
The old man smiled, the most gentle smile. “When you live in the moment you have access to all that you need right then and there. You stick with me, young man. I’ll teach you all I know about being fully present.”
That night Joseph thought about what the old man said and he saw the value in it, the wisdom. But he still had no idea how to be present, how not to look for the future or regret the past. It just did not seem possible, it seemed completely out of reach. When he tried, sitting up in bed, his mind wandered forward and back in time.”
In the morning he awoke and cast his eyes over at an empty bed where the old man had laid and a deep sadness came over him. There had been no time to get to know him, no time to learn his secret to remaining in the present. When the nurse came in Joseph was surprised to hear that the old man had not died, but was in a private hospice room. It was expected that he would pass on very soon.
“Can I visit him? He wanted to tell me something.”
“That would be nice. Mr. Granger doesn’t ever have real visitors. His people are all gone. It’s just him.”
That morning an orderly wheeled Joseph to a quiet room in a far off corner of the hospital. The room looked more like a hotel than a hospital room. There was carpeting and a side table and a dresser and a comfy looking, overstuffed easy chair next the hospital bed where the old man lay propped up on an abundance of pillows.
The bedside table had a crowd of framed pictures. Joseph perused the photos. There was the old man in younger, leaner years on a camel in front of the Egyptian Pyramids, a picture of him in a tuxedo beside a beautiful young woman in a diaphanous wedding gown. There were several of the same woman at different ages. There were others pictures of just the man. There were a couple of him when he was older and in most of these he was dressed in an immaculate suit and addressing large groups of serious looking people.
The old man stirred and Joseph turned to his side. The steel grey eyes fluttered and open. They projected fear and pain. Joseph felt the old man’s hand grasp his and he held on to the cool, thin hand and his new friend settled back and closed his eyes. A few moments later the old man was wracked with a cough and Joseph patted his back and held the oxygen mask to his face and continued to hold his hand when the battle for air had subsided.
When the nurse came to tell him that visiting hours were over, he surprised himself by telling her he was a patient and would be staying the night. After some initial fuss they brought in a cot and moved his chart and belongings into the room with the old man. On the third day after this move the doctors discharged Joseph, but the nursing staff allowed him stay in the room as a 24 hour visitor.
Over the next four days Joseph tended to the old man. He found a worn, dog eared copy of The Odyssey by Homer in a battered suitcase and read it outloud when the old man was awake or dozing. Finally, when the old man lapsed into a coma, Joseph read to the him in the hope that he could still hear. The nurse showed Joseph how to moisten the man’s lips with a sponge and he helped the staff to change the bedsheets and wash the withered body. And he waited for his improbable friend to wake up and tell him the secret of staying present.
At 11:20 on a bright Sunday morning, the old man squeezed Joseph’s hand for a couple seconds and relaxed. Then the frail and sunken body shuddered and lay still. He was gone. Joseph rested his head lightly on the wrinkled hand till a nurse came in and gently lifted him away.
Through tears, as the nurse embraced him, Joseph said, “He was going to teach me to live in the present, but now he’s gone.”
The nurse pulled back and held him at arm’s length with a concerned look.
“You already know that. You have been completely attentive to Mr. Granger for over a week. It’s because of you that he didn’t die alone.”