A Story Of Two Old Men

Recently my grandfather was put in a nursing home.  He’s around 90 years old and very feeble at this point.  He had been somehow managing to stay in his home, but has now hit a point where he needs people to care for him.  Just to give an example, I got a phone call at 3 AM one morning from my grandfather, asking for help.  He was heading to the bathroom, had fallen, and couldn’t get up.  I made my way over there to find him face first in a pile of dirty clothes, unable to move, having soiled himself in a dirty pamper.  Since I’m a weight lifter, I’m the only one available who is strong enough to lift a 150 lb man off the floor.

But that’s not even what I want to talk about.  So my grandfather is in the nursing home and I’m going to visit him.   He’s served three meals a deal, and for dinners they normally wheel him out to a table in the main dining area where he eats dinner with several other old men.   I decided to join my grandpa one evening and we’re all sitting around a big table.  Conversations started up and it turns out that one of the old men is a former university professor.  He really enjoyed talking with me.  Turns out he went to MIT, earned several degrees, has taught as a professor in many different universities, published all these papers, was on top of his field, and even wrote the most highly used textbook in his field.  Impressive guy.

Here’s what baffled me.  Here’s this decorated man, full of knowledge and expertise but nobody visits him.  His wife had entered the nursing home with him but she’s now dead.  His kids live far off and don’t visit. Though he’s not far from the campus, no students ever visit him, even though he’s the author of the very textbook they’re using.  The old faculty he worked with are now all dead and gone, the newly hired faculty have never contacted him, and nobody has ever felt it even worth letting him know what has been going on in the very department that he founded.  My father was at the dinner table as well and called up their department chair.  Even though this old man is listed on their emeritus faculty page, the chairman didn’t even know who the old man was!  You’d think someone would’ve tracked this impressive guy down, asking him about all these papers he’s published, trying to pick his brain for insights, etc.  Nobody ever has.  Think about that a moment.  I wonder if anyone has even read the hundreds of papers he published, outside of just looking for things to put into their own papers for references.  I’m just saying.

Compare this to my grandpa’s room which was full of people at all times of the day.  Whenever he would complain of the food, all of us family members were out on the road and taking things to him, even when he probably wasn’t supposed to be eating it.  Even I was sneaking him strawberry milkshakes.  Why could grandpa call me at 3 AM for help, or request I run all around town to get him food?  Good question.  Probably because for my entire life he’s loved me unconditionally and I could always see he did everything he could to make me happy.  Whether it was when he made me homemade nunchucks and bow staffs in his wood shop because I loved the the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a kid, or when he took me fishing at Meramec springs early in the morning, or when he’d play baseball with me in the backyard.  Maybe it’s when he came and admired my tree fort I built in the woods and showed me how to shoot a BB gun.  Maybe it’s when he’d buy me packs of baseball cards and watch me place them in my trapper keeper, talking about all the different teams and players.  Maybe it’s when he used to print me off business cards which said, “Call me at any time if you’re in trouble, no questions asked, Love, Granny and Papa”, and it left their phone number.  It could be when he gave me the hat he was wearing just because I expressed interest in it.  It could be all the Sunday dinners where he was constantly patting me on the back, telling me how proud he was of me (when I hadn’t ever accomplished much of anything), and how much he loved me.  Could be the holidays where he always bought me gifts and was smiling as I opened them.  Even when I’m visiting him in the nursing home, he wants to know all about me.  He was asking me if I’d bought that truck I was looking into and wanted to see pictures of it.  Asked me how I was liking teaching, whether any of the students gave me trouble, whether it was hard work, etc.  I don’t know, seems to be a whole lot of things.  Even a hermit like me will go visit a guy like my grandpa if he’s stuck in a nursing home alone, and I rarely get out of the house at all.

Those who love unconditionally will be loved unconditionally, even when they have nothing of value left to give.  I don’t think people care much if you went to MIT, or have all kinds of accolades.  I certainly don’t.  People do seem to genuinely care when you care about them.

I can’t help but make an observation.  I wonder if the world has some mysterious mechanism behind it, drawing people of like minds together.  Those who love unconditionally in turn draw unconditional love back to themselves.  Likewise, those who are using the people and environment around them primarily for personal advancement somehow find themselves surrounded by similar people.  These types are so caught up in their own selves, their ambitions, their dreams, etc., there is never any time to care about anyone else, such as visiting an old man in a nursing home.  Could this be what happened to the old professor?  -shrugs-  Who knows.

Later that evening I was spending time with my Dad, and he reflected on this old professor at the nursing home.  Dad quoted Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities.  All is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?”  I agree with him.  The old professor spent a lifetime building up some reputation that nobody cares about anymore.  He made all kinds of money, but when he could no longer care for his mansion, it had to be sold and the money was taken by his children who don’t even visit him.  The rest of his money was taken by the nursing home.  His lovely wife is dead and gone.  Even his mind, which he spent his entire life cultivating, it’s falling apart due to dementia.  Why get caught up in these weird “games” of life?  Outside of enjoying the process, there is little point to it.

3 thoughts on “A Story Of Two Old Men”

  1. Dear Jason, I liked this story very much and it has especially touched me because I have recently lost to pneumonia my dearly loved over 90 years old mother who was living with me until the end. I miss her more than I would ever be able to say. Old people are like old trees, whose soft protective shadow alone is enough to give the feeling of warmth and security. Their death is uprooting of the sense of one’s own continuity, one has to grow out of a shell of incredible pain, explain the inexplicable to oneself.
    You are lucky that you can still embrace your grandpa every day and tell him how important he is to you!

    However I think that it would also be important to ask if we people do really have a so called “free will”. We have more and more scientific evidence that we don’t really have a free will. Neither the Prof. nor your grandfather would have been able to act differently than they did in their lives. My father had a series of books which I adored reading: “The Story of Civilization” by Will Durant. In one of these I had read : “We are born in chains …” . Meaning the time era in which we were born, our social and cultural environment etc. etc. Recently we became aware that we carry some additional invisible chains in our DNA, in our genomes, in the bacteria of our gut and so on…
    Does it come as it comes because there is no other way or can we take real influence in what we do, what we decide?
    How much is this influence?
    And what is more important: Can we have empathy, care for others and their problems and still be able to follow tasks in research and discovery? Pioneering thinking has never been a collective job! Is it cultural or is it the nature of things? And pioneering thinking and research is good for everyone. Is it not so?
    Best wishes for you and your family and best regards from Germany,
    Anastasia

    1. As to the question of free will, it makes me think of a passage I read from a book containing the teachings of Ramana Maharshi.

      Q: Is there such a thing as free will?
      A: Whose will is it? So long as there is the sense of doership, there is the sense of enjoyment and of individual will. But if this sense is lost through the practice of vichara (self-inquiry), the divine will will act and guide the course of events. Fate is overcome by jnana, Self-knowledge, which is beyond will and fate.
      – Ramana Maharshi

      The question is whose will would it be? Who is it who feels they are or are not free? That’s what needs investigated. I believe this individual to be an illusion, an illusion which is identical with and must dissolve into the substratum of whatever reality is, being one and the same thing as the substratum. But what is reality? According to how we typically think of this problem, reality is only known when it is observed, thought about, and analyzed. This requires that there must be two separate things, the knower and the known. However, if there’s no separate individuals to be the knower, that too is an illusion. We’re left with the singular existence, the I AM, call it God, the Self, whatever you wish to call it. I don’t believe this to be physical, but the physical comes out of it. Otherwise how would we account for all the subjective experiences we have, such as the taste of sweetness, or the beautiful sounds of music? Physics describes reality as just vibrating energy, or something to that effect, and that can’t account for those types of subjective experiences. It seems Max Planck was thinking along these lines when he said, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.” Others such as Schrodinger, when looking into quantum mechanics, realized that this idea of there being separate individuals is an illusion when he said, “Consciousness is a singular for which there is no plural.” I believe this great consciousness is playing a game, playing all kinds of illusory characters, some who falsely believe they’re separate from one another. In reality, we’re all this consciousness, and it is us. There is only this I AM, and everything that exists projects out of it, and is it. The great consciousness is free, and since we’re one and the same with it, so are we, but we are not what most of us think we are. The false you, Anastasia, sure, she has no “real influence” over the events, but she doesn’t exist. She’s a bundle of thoughts and some fleeting experiences. That isn’t who you are. You’re identical with the great, eternal flow that is and always will be.

      As for research, I believe we can care for others. We just need to get over this idea that we’re separate individuals when we are not. When we see each other as parts on one collective body, which we all are, the research will naturally aim in directions which care for others and think of the impacts on everyone involved. We can’t help but love ourselves, and if we can see everyone and everything as ourselves, the rest will work itself out. We won’t pollute the environment when see think of it as our own veins, and we won’t exploit one another when you’re the left hand, I’m the right hand, and our friend over there is the eyeball letting us see.

      1. I quite agree Jason! We also have to stop think anthropocentrically, I believe we have to be considerate also for the children of other species and not just ours, we have to be respective to nature and environment. I am afraid that this can work only if the majority of people agree! It is however enough if a small minority thinks and acts differently to break it all up. Because usually this minority is much more agile and praxis-oriented than the rest of people, they are dynamic and full of drive and ideas and according to the above they are one with the rest of the world, they are we. If I understood right their will is also our will, because the whole is ONE, so when “they” occasionally destroy, because they made a mistake, or because they are too greedy and so on, it is us who destroy in our (?) common generalized probably free in itself will? So nobody and nothing can be ever observed as wrong, because then everything and everyone is wrong, and as there can be no alternative (where should an alternative come from?) it is all good as it is! You say we have to care for one another. Believe me, people who destroy, they also do care for others, they care to bring about results that will be good almost for everyone!
        This is the dilemma, I think. What do we learn out of that?
        Thank you so much for the interesting ideas and themes in your blog! Thank you also for the discussion. Best wishes, Anastasia

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