Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Ambient Solitude

Ambient space. Reflective solitude. Creative atmosphere. Contemplative retreat.

We all have our favourite word or phrase to describe the treasured islands in our busy lives where we can retreat to think, reflect, decompress, and re-charge.

More often than not, solitude is an integral part built into these spaces. And it seems fitting, today, to seek some solitude to reflect on the recent death of a friend who died alone.

Let’s call her Sally.

Sally was just a few months younger than me. If we’d known each other back in high school, we’d have been in the same group photos at graduation. I don’t know Sally’s complete biography — she shared tidbits here and there, but there were a lot of gaps where it wouldn’t have been polite to pry into — but suffice it to say that our lives post-high school were probably quite different.

But through a local non-profit service agency, I had the recurring privilege of leading a small team of volunteers who helped clean Sally’s modest dwelling. Years of substance abuse had robbed Sally of much of her mobility, and she really appreciated our visits to help her out with the things she couldn’t do for herself any longer.

Despite her growing infirmity, Sally always greeted us with a mischievous smile and her signature response when I’d ask how she was doing — “I’m still walking, and I’m still talking!”

Just a few weeks ago, while we were cleaning her place, she put on some classic rock from the 1960s — LOUD — and cajoled some of the high school volunteers to join her in a shuffling dance party in the middle of her living room.
I’ll never forget the look of joy and serenity on her face as the volunteers held hands with her and joined her in a circle of celebration. “Who you are, is a gift,” she admonished each of them, wagging a stern finger. “Don’t let anybody steal that away from you.”
As she hugged her dance-mates farewell, Sally was beaming like a home-coming queen on prom night.

During our next visit, I couldn’t help but notice she seemed much weaker, and her mind kept wandering as she couldn’t keep her mental focus.
“How are you doing, Sally?” I asked, concerned.

She laughed much like her usual self, flashing her mischievous grin. “I'm still walking and still talking, Robby!”
She didn’t invite the volunteers to dance that day, but she hugged each of them as they left, thanking them for their help. As each student embraced her, Sally’s face lit up with a smile.

We never saw her again. Her body was discovered on Mother’s Day. The paramedics said she’d been dead for several days. Her fragile, worn-out body just couldn’t go on any longer.
She died alone.
To me, the saddest part of Sally’s story is how it ended. Alone. The child-like joy on her face when the students danced with her, just a couple of weeks previous, seems especially poignant now.

I recall an old, old Randy Stonehill lyric:
The sound of our motor would frighten the starlings,
and they’d rise from the fields to fly,
And I couldn’t help feeling sad and inspired
by their desperate ballet in the sky,
Say a prayer for the starlings.
It’s tragic that Sally died alone. Yet, I’m glad that, just before the end, she had the opportunity for one last dance with people who cared about her.

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