This August, I went back to school to learn how better to teach, only partly because the smell of fresh notebooks and sharply pointed pencils fills me with satisfaction.
In my child development class, we learned that children’s brains are incapable of empathizing directly with someone else’s perspective until they reach eight-years-old. They can’t imagine what things must be like in someone else’s mind without injecting all of their own emotions.
It was at this point during the class lecture that I realized I am seven and a half years old.
My beau and I visit a Catholic Church-funded retirement home every month to celebrate the birthday men and women (boys and girls) in that community. Each month the group from our church brings cake, soda, gifts for the month’s birthday folks, and smiling conversation as we spend a little time with people who have little money and little entertainment beyond the confines of the home.
I love spending time with the people I meet there, but I didn’t noticed my lack of perspective until last month’s “birthday party.”
My beau adopted a grandmother, we’ll call her Pearl, who grew out of her sour face mood she held a few years ago and into a sarcastic, yet bubbly demeanor. Ask anyone but my beau and they will tell you it’s because of his attention to her and pushing compassion for her to turn her frown upside down. When I started visiting for these parties with him, I co-adopted her and we’re now a happy group as long as the Parkinson’s and arthritis remains at bay for the day.
At last month’s party, I spent much of the time with another woman who will soon celebrate her ninety-sixth birthday and whom I will call Mrs. Jefferson. We discussed how much my city has changed (note: she was starting her eighth decade when I was born, so she had a lot to contribute to this conversation) and other features about life, laughter, and love.
They ate cake, the party wrapped up, and everyone started going back to their rooms. We walked Mrs. Jefferson and Pearl to their rooms, dropping off Mrs. Jefferson, whose speech is muffled by her lack of dentures. We later realized she was asking us to see something in her room, but because we couldn’t understand, we rolled her into her bedroom and went back on our journey to Pearl’s room. More on this later.
Back in Pearl’s room, we were chatting about the faded photos on her walls, including a black and white portrait of her and her husband, a man who passed away nearly 25 years ago. My beau voiced a question I’ve often wondered, but never asked of these experienced, older friends of mine.
“Pearl, would you mind if I ask you: Do you think about your husband often? Do you still miss him?” he asked.
It’s a fair question. It’s hard to imagine, in this time in our young lives when we’re thinking about weddings, ordinations, holy orders, and neglecting the time beyond a certain time frame. I think about raising children and how best to keep track of them when we visit the state fair, not what it will be like when they provide me with grandchildren. I definitely do not want to think about what life would be like 60 years down the road, when I might be husbandless and mourning.
So my defense is to believe they “get over it,” eventually and move on.
“Of course, yes, of course,” she answered with a choke. “Everyday.”
Later that afternoon, we were walking back to the car and saw Mrs. Jefferson wheeling herself back toward her room, head down with something lying on her lap. We called out to her and excitement spread across her face as she held up the framed photo she was carrying.
It was a hand-tinted photo of a young, sturdy black man standing next to a solid, tall black woman in front of a simple Victorian-style home. They weren’t smiling, presumably because the photo was taken when Mrs. Jefferson was twenty-two years old (i.e. 1938) and it wasn’t a high-quality camera, but they were proud.
Mrs. Jefferson said she and her husband were photographed there a week after their wedding day and that they were still getting used to each other. Mr. Jefferson died more than forty years ago.
“He was a sweet man,” Mrs. Jackson poked at the glass. “That was a sweet man, I tell you.” Mrs. Jackson also choked a bit. She repeated herself again.
When my heart didn’t break last month upon listening to my two wise friends, I realized how little perspective on life I really have, so it wrinkled. It wrinkled into submission to the knowledge that I, much like my five-year-old companions, have an unrefined perspective on how long “eros” love lasts between two people.
Without thinking, I was operating under the assumption that eighty-five-year-olds and ninety-six-year-olds who buried their husbands decades ago no longer felt sadness or loneliness without them. Wouldn’t it be a shame if my old perspective was right?
For now I’ll tie my eros to God’s agape and continue to build philos with my wrinkled heart. Someday, if God’s will is to lead me to a life similar to Pearl’s and Mrs. Jefferson’s, I will excitedly rummage for the photo of me and my husband.