I am grateful for the life of Gertie Bujold. She is the mother of one of my dearest friends. Gertie worked as my father’s secretary in his car dealership when she was young, before she had children, and my father thought the world of her and for good reason. And as fate would have it, many years later, Gertie’s daughter, my friend also worked for my father and he admired Angie with equal fervour. Gertie has recently died and her passing reminded me of the advice and wisdom she passed along, not so much in her words, but in her actions, in how she lived her life, and …. it got me thinking.
I recently watched a video of a woman in a wheelchair, her body tired and thin, looking frail, and her memory had been stolen by Alzheimer’s. The music began to play, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and this woman began to move, her arms raised gently, her head swaying, her body remembering what her mind no longer could. It was claimed in the video clip that this woman was Marta Gonzalez, a former Prima Ballerina who had once danced to Swan Lake. Fact-checking has revealed that she may or may not have been a prima ballerina and isn’t who the video claims she is, but there is no doubt that this music spoke to her and her body responded when her brain no longer could.
As we look at the elderly, it is easy to forget what stories the cells in their body could tell of them. We tend to think they were always this old, always this frail, always this forgetful and slow. And to be honest, there are days when I forget my younger self galloping madly on my pony my bare legs holding me in place as if the two of us were one, I forget I once ran barefoot at track events, did back handsprings and walk-overs and spun around on the uneven bars and fell off the balance beam with alarming regularity, when now I can hardly turn around quickly in my kitchen without getting dizzy. But what if we paused and simply remembered and celebrated all the pieces of who we are and carry along with us and do so for everyone we meet. What if we remembered this body once pumped higher on a swing than it ever had before, learned how to ride a two-wheeler with no hands, arms raised high above her/his head, tobogganed down long steep hills with cold snow rushing into our face making us feel more alive than we thought possible. What if we remembered she once hit a home run and won a dance-a-thon and she still blushes when she remembers holding hands for the first time. What if we remembered when we look at someone who has lost her luster that she once had command of her days, once struck out in life knowing where she was going and fixing her internal compass in that direction. What if we remembered she survived childbirth, and in doing so, learned she could now survive anything.
And yes, my precious friend has just bid her mother farewell and her heart feels as if it is breaking. Her mother would tell her she will be okay, that life is travelling the road as it is meant to, and she would be the first to slap her knee and say what’s next and let’s get on with it. I hope Angie finds comfort in remembering her mother bustling around the kitchen, sewing great creations, her fingers knowing exactly what to do with hardly any thought, her wonderful laugh and willingness to find the joy in absolutely everything, her good-natured teasing and encouraging, her no-nonsense view of life, never asking more of anyone than she asked of herself and her always being up for any kind of fun with her laugh always locked and loaded. So, I won’t remember Gertie as she was waiting for release from her failed body, but I will remember who she still was inside, right to her very last breath – the woman who raised nine children and instilled in each of them a sense of purpose and curiousity and a profound ability to laugh even when it seemed impossible to laugh, who fostered and fed their musical abilities and intelligence and desire to be the best version of themselves. And who leaves them now, blessed to have called her mother and whose memories of her, all the versions of their mother will keep them warm until they too say, let’s get on with it.