Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Eyes Have It


“I care more and more about less and less,” said the old man.

He’d just recovered from two brushes with death, each requiring major surgery and I had asked him how he was feeling. That was his answer. He looked me in the eye and waited for me to respond. For several seconds I thought about it and then asked him what he meant. “The number of things that concern me has narrowed as I get older,” he explained, “but I care more about those things than I used to.”

I understood that. He’d chosen his words carefully. He continued to look at me and I could see in his eyes that he was okay. He’d accepted that he would die sooner or later and probably sooner, but he didn’t seem anxious about it. He was a religious man and he’d had many heartaches in his long life. He was no stranger to suffering - physical, emotional and spiritual. We were friends because he let me know him and I wondered if our friendship was one of the things he still cared about. I didn’t ask, but I believe it was. We had discussed much about what troubled us and what made us happy, but words were not the only way we communicated. Silent eye contact said a great deal. He didn’t look away when we talked or when we paused and I could see no guile in his eyes. There’s wisdom in that old Yiddish proverb: “The eyes are the mirrors of the soul,” and also in the quote from Emerson: “The eyes indicate the antiquity of the soul.” The old man had lived through a long life with many hills and valleys and swamps. He didn’t look forward to dying, but there was no fear in his eyes.

When I was a young man, death was part of my job. My college classes were all in the morning and I worked a 3-11 shift every night at a geriatric hospital where people didn’t get better and go home. They went there to die and if they had their marbles, they knew it. As an orderly, I fed them, cleaned them up when they soiled themselves, put them to bed at night, and brought them down to the morgue when they died. During my two-and-a-half years there, many dozens died on my shift. I cleaned their bodies, tied on their toe tags, wrapped them in their shrouds, lifted them onto the stretcher and brought them down to the “cooler” from which the undertakers would pick them up. Most didn’t go gracefully, but some did and I’ll always remember those. Often I could tell how they would deal with their deaths by looking in their eyes.

Some people I’ve been acquainted with for years don’t let me know them. They guard their eyes in various ways, and they have a repertoire of personas they put on and take off like a set of clothes, only more quickly. Whatever is real under all that I never see. Maybe I wouldn’t want to if I could. G. K. Chesterton said, “There’s a road from eye to heart that does not go through the intellect,” but for these people, that road is blocked. Some block it on purpose; some aren’t even aware.

Other people let me know them. After we get friendly, a few will confide that I made them nervous by the way I looked at them when we first met. They were intimidated. That surprised me at first; then it started to bother me because I didn’t intend to make them uncomfortable. Lately though, I’m coming to accept it. I’m just not very good at small talk and I don’t often engage in it. If there’s nothing to say, I prefer to look and listen silently to people, and that makes some of them nervous. Sometimes my mind will wander while I’m trying to listen. That’s rude, I know, but I can’t help it. If I think of it, I’ll smile more when I’m looking at someone to try and soften whatever their impression might be, but only if it’s a real smile. I don’t want to fake it. Life is too short for pretense.

Familiarity with death isn’t morbid. Awareness of death can enrich life. One of life’s few certainties is that we all die. It’s just a matter of how and when. Though I can’t say for sure, I believe there are worse things than death and a meaningless life is probably one of them. We humans need to believe in something greater than ourselves. As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. put it: “If a man has nothing he would die for, he isn’t fit to live.”

2 comments:

Dylan D. Former student said...

I myself felt some sort "intimidated" of talking to you to at first. Therefore that is why I did not raise my hand much at the start and some what the middle of the year. Most likely I was afraid of being wrong, or saying something dumb. Witch I now know I did freakwently anyways haha (say dumb stuff). I also had few good points to say in your per. 4 class (while or while not raising my hand haha).

__Dylan DiMartino

Tom McLaughlin said...

Yes Dylan, many of your comments were insightful. Your timing was off sometimes, but you were worth listening to.