It’s what you leave behind you when you go
Ten years ago, during the welcoming ceremony for incoming students at my youngest son’s college, a speaker read a poem that ends with a question.
Many of you will recognize it, perhaps have claimed it as a mantra.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Since that day I have been a fan of Mary Oliver, buying and borrowing books to visit and revisit her poems — “Wild Geese,” “The Summer Day,” “The Journey” and many others.
How does one reply to Oliver’s question? (Or is it a challenge, a dare?)
Long before I had heard of Oliver, my answer was taking shape.
In 2003, I took three months of Family Leave to help my mother move into a nursing home. She would remain there for the next 3 1/2 years — existing, her emotions mostly flatlined by medication but mercifully no longer angry at the world, until she died peacefully sitting in her wheelchair.
I remember wheeling her in the first day and thinking, “Is this all there is?”
One of my siblings asked me then if our mother, in the throes of early dementia, knew that the nursing home was “her last stop.”
During my three-month leave of absence, I visited the nursing home 88 days, give or take. I say this not to boast or to seek praise, but to say that it was a privilege to be there for her and to see that world up close.
A memory seared into my brain on Day One. A 19-year-old, underpaid and overworked Certified Nurse Assistant, a tattooed young man not much older than my sons, wheeled my mother into the bathroom after she had soiled herself.
The religious among us would say CNAs do the Lord’s work, and I would not disagree.
My mom was well cared for there, although the food often looked gray. It’s all relative, of course, for there are plenty of horror stories at such warehouses of our elderly.
The $9,000 a month (2003–2006) drained all but maybe $20,000 of her life’s savings and that of her physician brother, a frugal bachelor who had bequeathed his estate to his sisters. My mother taught first grade, and my father, who died in 2000, was a postal clerk who took the bus to work every day.
During my three months of near daily visits, I sat with my mother and other residents at mealtimes, observing activities like bingo and beach ball toss, and enjoying performances by local musicians and singers. On nice days, I would take my mom outside in her wheelchair for the sunshine and fresh air — a luxury there, trust me.
Inside, I observed so many humbling moments, bizarre conversations and quiet acts of dignity and kindness that I took notes, knowing I had to do something with what I was witnessing.
I even tried to write a play, which I never finished or tried to publish, titled “The Unit,” a nod to the dementia floor.
The drafts are somewhere in my files, where they should stay until the next bonfire, but I did like one part of what I wrote (it happens occasionally).
One character was “Mr. Zip.” I made him a former postal worker who could name the Zip code of pretty much any city in the U.S.
“Mr. Zip” got a particular kick out of asking visitors, “What’s the Zip code for that big state university in Columbus, Ohio?” (It’s 43210). He would answer his own question, “4–3–2–1-BOOM!!” and laugh uproariously.
That was poetic license, mind you, but I had to create some levity where I could.
Like many on the Unit in real life, the man who inspired the Mr. Zip character could be funny and charming one moment, belligerent or violent the next — and sometimes remarkably reflective and insightful.
“Sooner or later,” Mr. Zip said in one of his quieter moments, “we’re nothing more than a dusty picture frame in our kids’ living rooms. Gone and forgotten.”
Those three months shaped me more than I realized. I still read the local obituaries online every day and look for familiar names and the ages of the recently deceased. If I see someone my age or younger — which happens more and more — Oliver’s question comes back at me with renewed urgency. Maybe it’s panic.
When COVID hit in early 2020 and claimed legendary singer-songwriter John Prine as an early victim, I watched a video of him in an intimate setting singing, “Hello In There.”
Almost immediately I signed up as a volunteer for Meals on Wheels, delivering food to senior citizens one day a week. In less than two years, six or seven of the clients on my route have died. They lived alone, but they were in their own homes or in senior housing, and they were wonderful, kind people.
I still think about them when I drive past their homes. Occasionally Prine’s lyrics find space in my head alongside Oliver’s question.
“You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day;
Old people just grow lonesome
waiting for someone to say,
Hello in there, hello.”
I don’t worry too much about how things will play out for me. It’s more productive, I think, to hone a skill Oliver cites in “A Summer Day” — knowing how to pay attention.
And having the courage to ask ourselves the difficult questions.
In “When Death Comes,” Oliver wrote, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
The poet died in 2019 at age 83.
Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. The headline comes from a song, “Three Wooden Crosses,” written by Kim Williams and Doug Johnson. John Prine’s family established the Hello In There Foundation in his memory. The foundation’s work of supporting people on the margins of society is inspired by his song, “Hello In There.”