I walk along the nursing-home hallway, my mind already focused on the staff meeting for which I am late. Passing open doorways, muttering a reflexive “Good morning” to staff and residents, I mull over the morning’s agenda, anticipating reports and preparing remarks. So it is only peripherally that I notice Sophie, who is sitting in her well-worn, blue recliner off in a corner of what we call “the pod.”
The pod is an open space in the middle of each nursing care corridor, intended to be a cozy, social space for residents. In reality, most days it becomes a busy hub for staff and a congested crossroad of wheel chairs, body lifts, med carts, and laundry bins. Rarely is it the homey place it was meant to be.
Sophie seems to enjoy the busyness of the pod. The blue recliner in the corner is where she spends much of her day, watching and listening. Sophie’s dementia has advanced to the point where she says very little, and what she does say emerges from many different moments in her long, rich life—or maybe sometimes from a life she has imagined. Sometimes all that emerges is a howl— whether of joy or lament is not always clear— that carries down hallways and penetrates walls. Sophie often sleeps in her chair. When she is awake, her gaze appears vacant, though I wonder if she’s watching something that the rest of us are unable to perceive.
Sophie is in her chair. My mind registers this quotidian reality, along with the fact that I’m about to do my own usual thing and walk right on by. Sophie is in her chair. Why not stop? I’m late for the meeting. I don’t have time. No time? What does that mean?
The mental pause is enough to break through my distraction and redirect my steps over to Sophie. I kneel down and gently rest my hand on hers. Sophie’s gaze slowly shifts from the floor to my left ear. “Good morning, Sophie,” I say.
A long silence passes, and then it’s as if I’m watching a veil lift. Her eyes brighten and move to meet my gaze. A smile rises at the corners of her mouth. Sophie’s hand turns to hold mine, and her fingers—just skin over bones, really—interlace with my own.
“Oh! It’s you!”
“Yes, it’s me, Sophie. It’s good to see you this morning.”
Another silence. Breathing. Gazing. Then the veil is thrown aside completely and Sophie exclaims, “I think you are so alive!”
The ecstatic force of her words knocks me back on my heels. She is beaming at me now, her face bearing a youthful, playful grin I’ve never seen before, and I lose all sense of the busyness around us and the agendas burdening my mind.
“Sophie, I think you are so alive, too!” Sophie throws her head back and releases a laugh that shakes her withering frame, then looks back into my eyes with a steady, reaching gaze. “Oh, I don’t know,” she says, “I think I will be going soon, but I don’t know when.”
As soon as these words leave her mouth, the fading begins. Sophie’s smile lowers, her grip slackens, the glint in her eyes dims as her gaze slowly shifts to a place just over my left shoulder. The veil falls once again.
I don’t want to leave her. I don’t know how to turn my back on Sophie and walk away with this searing mix of joy and sorrow, clarity and confusion. I look around wondering if anyone else has witnessed Sophie’s unveiling, but the busy pace of the pod continues to swirl and flow.
I’m left wondering about how easily I live somewhere other than where I am. How effortlessly I can be with a whole host of people other than the person I am actually with. By the powers of the mind I can be anywhere but here. Ruminating over the past, anticipating a future that is yet to be, or even wishing for a more preferable present, my own awareness often wears a veil—many veils—in the here and the now.
Meanwhile, now remains a singular opportunity for encounter and experience. Here is still the only real and possible place of being with the Beloved who is with us always but who is obscured by our veils of pretense and distraction. Presence longs for presence. We are free, of will and mind, to choose presence or absence. God has already made a choice, the choice for pervasively immanent and passionately abiding Presence.
This shared moment of presence with Sophie now becomes a remembrance, a story. You read it as words of black ink on the white page. Your gaze scans these words, your breath falls on this page. I think you are so alive.