A few decades ago, once a month for a week for a few years, I’d pack my bag, drive up the road to the Nechi Institute: Centre of Indigenous Learning and co-teach modules for their Advanced Counsellor Training program. Sometimes I’d be paired with the same staff trainer, making the dance of co-teaching more fluid with time. On other occasions, when those trainers were taking Nechi’s programs to other parts of Canada and beyond, I’d be partnered with guest faculty. Always a rich learning experience taking me to my edges as I immersed in First Nations-Metis culture and came face to face with anxiety, prejudice and racism – mine, theirs, ours. I remember particularly the week I worked with Vera, an Eastern Cree medicine woman.
We were studying individual and families. Drawing from my clinical social work training, my role was to give theoretical credibility to the curricula, introducing established clinical frames. I looked to my co-teachers and students for help to contextualize this into indigenous worldview. In this case, Vera helped us see how a life fully lived comes full circle: that we leave the world much as we came into it, small and frail, with the characteristics of an infant, depending on others for life.
A few weeks ago, The Scientist and I made the trip “home” to visit our families, to celebrate my father’s 85th birthday, to spend time with his parents. Both in their nineties, in January they made the overnight move from the house they purchased after emigrating from Germany in the mid 1950’s, into a retirement-care facility to support his father’s declining health. A farm mechanic who finally applied his trade as after serving in WW II and being taken prisoner of war – “came home no longer a boy, but a man who I fell in love with,” blushes his wife – Dad still received calls for help from the Niagara farmers well into his eighties. Two summers ago, still vibrant with a strong embrace and hearty laugh. Now, small and frail, using a walker, eating pureed food. When not sleeping, looking around with wide-eyed curiosity, yet less and less present to in-the-moment conversations. One foot in this world and the other in the next.
As I bent to kiss him good-bye on the cheek, I thought of Vera’s lesson and saw the truth of it in my father-in-law, a man who now was becoming more child-like in appearance and disposition.
As we drove to the airport to make our return home debriefing the highs and lows of our visit, The Scientist said he heard his father quietly say in a moment of crystal clarity, with his family bustling around as he sat at the kitchen table, “I’m happy.”
The simple, sweet statement of what has always given him joy.
For Old Age
May the light of your soul mind you.
May all your worry and anxiousness about your age
May you be given wisdom for the eyes of your soul
To see this as a time of gracious harvesting.
May you have the passion to heal what has hurt you,
And allow it to come closer and become one with you.
May you have great dignity,
Sense how free you are:
Above all, may you be given the wonderful gift
Of meeting the eternal light that is within you.
May you be blessed;
And may you find a wonderful love
In your self for your self.