Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Independence Paradox

Walking past my neighbor's home today I stopped to say "hi," because I had not done it in a few days. Mrs. F, a new widow, is nearly 90 years of age with eyesight regarded as legally blind. She is still quite able, however, and extremely determined to prove how capable she is.

Mr. F enjoyed most of the spring with her, yet by summer he knew he wasn’t well. He kept his awareness from her as long as possible – until a couple of weeks before his death. He left about a month before summer turned to fall. Now, as days of daylight grow shorter, I wonder how much colder her life will seem when winter arrives.

I pushed the doorbell three times in rapid succession and rapped on the door in a unique rhythm. Mrs. F smiled broadly, as she usually does upon recognizing my friendly tap and physical form, and she wondered aloud where I had been.

"We have had some busy days," I said and then filled her in on activities Mark and I had enjoyed in support of our children and also events we had attended for work and pleasure.

"I had hoped nothing was wrong," she said.

"No, nothing wrong.” Then, recognizing how she had come to rely on my attentiveness, I offered an apology for not having stopped by sooner. “Is there anything you need from the grocery store? I plan to go later," I asked.

“Yes,” she said. She did need some things, but someone else was going to help with that. “She hasn’t called yet, though, so I don’t know.”

“Well, what if I call to check before I get ready to go to the store? That will give you time to check and even time to get a list ready,” I offered.

“That will be fine. I really only need a few things,” she said. “Thank you.”

I got a call within the hour. She had cancelled her other offer and wanted to know if mine was still open. “Certainly. I’ll pick you up at 4 p.m.”

“Oh, that will work great,” she said.

“I’ll see you then,” I assured.

At 4:02 p.m., her front door opened before my van had come to a stop. I got out to assist, but then waited. If she needed my help – closing the door, locking the door with her key, finding secure footing for each step – I would notice. I finally asked if she would appreciate help just to be certain.

“I’ll be fine,” she reassured. “I have this bar to grab that Mr. F put here for me.”

She grabbed that bar as if holding his hand. He had facilitated her independence then and now – at least for a while more.

The ride to the store was full of small talk about autumn: the leaves in her yard she was proud she had managed to rake earlier in the day, the foliage of trees in colors she can see, the children playing outside the local daycare who were enjoying one of the last warm days of the year.

The aisles of the store were comforting and familiar even if the placement of her desired products had become a mystery. She only needed to locate two items: bread and margarine. “I have become a big fan of toast,” she said. My list was three times as long, allowing for more time to be out, more time to recognize people’s voices, and more time to be seen. More time, also, to feel alive on one of the last warm days of the year.

Well-wishers added to a sense of well being.

“Why, hello.” “I was so sorry to learn about your husband.” “So good to see you out.” “How are you?”

Mrs. F smiled throughout. She kept her tears glistening inside her eyelids. She kept pushing her cart through open spaces, allowing me to take the lead as we moved through the store.

Returning home, she exited the van while I carried her two items to the door. I waited as she felt for the opening in the key lock and then made two unsuccessful attempts to insert her key. “Just a little higher,” I suggested. She opted to keep her left index finger on the opening while sliding her house key under that finger and into the slot with the aid of her right hand. “Success!” I exclaimed on her behalf, and then handed her purchases to her – all $3.19 worth.

After a bit more small talk, I opened the door to leave. She followed in order to lock the door behind me.

“Oh, wait,” she said. “Before you go, can you open this bottle of pills?”

“Certainly.” I obliged and opened.

“How did you do that? Will you show me?” Of course, I would.

“Feel these grips on either side of the cap? Just squeeze those and turn. Wah-la.”

Her face lighted. “My goodness. That was easy.”

“Why don’t you do it before I go just to be sure you don’t have questions.”

She easily opened it herself, and then, embarrassed, apologized for even asking. I reassured her that the demonstration had been my pleasure and she should not hesitate to ask for assistance again should the need arise. Then I left.

Mrs. F is doing well. She misses her husband of more than 60 years dearly, but she is doing well.

Independence. We aspire to it. We work to achieve it. We hang onto it in all ways possible.

I have learned the most valuable lessons about independence from my oldest son.

One tenet in particular: Independence is a paradox. It can only be achieved with the help of others.

Countries achieve independence when patriots fight – together.

Children exercise independence after learning skills from parents, friends and educators who have done their best work – together.

People remain independent through the help of others who support their goals and are willing to provide assistance as needed. The goals are accomplished together.

Independence comes through acceptance of our interdependence. It just does.


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