Two of my parishioners live in what we now call “assisted living centers,” in what we used to call nursing homes. The older nomenclature retains at least some sense of warmth and comfort. I’m not sure what the new terminology accomplishes, except assisting our culture of denial.
The good news is that both of these men, members of the “Greatest Generation,” are not to be denied. Herb is past ninety and Peter is very close to it. Herb attends Holy Redeemer as often as anyone and Peter makes it from time to time.
Visits with Herb and Peter give me a sense that we have all the time in the world. The fact is we have all the time God gives us and, in Christ, that is life without end; that beyond this life awaits a mystery: the end of time as any of us knows it in a place that is so wonderful its blessedness cannot be imagined within the limits of our fallen, finite minds: The Kingdom of Heaven.
Herb has more energy and zest for life than most fifty-somethings. Frankly, I go to see him—as often as I am able, which isn’t often enough—to be encouraged, to get the spark back. His disposition is radiant, his words carefully chosen and never trivial, his handshake firm, his smile wry. I think he’s the first man I’ve known to whom the word “indomitable” applies.
A picture of Herb and his wife adorns his tablestand. Taken during the Second World War, they’re at the USO; he in his Army uniform, she, proud to be married to this tall, earnest young man, both obliviously happy.
Herb makes what he calls his “rounds” of the other tenants at his home each day (about 56, at last count), speaks a word of life, listens to them, sits with them if they don’t talk much. He waits with them and on them. He lingers, watching for the moment when just the right word or gesture will make all the difference. Charity is the old word for it. That word and it’s modern counterpart, love, long emptied of their deeper resonances, are reinvigorated by Herb. He brings a bit of the Kingdom of Heaven with him wherever he goes.
Peter is a wit. He’s the sharpest knife in the drawer; you know to quit while you’re ahead. In another life he had an office in Manhattan near the United Nations Building. He knew people. He was a success in New York and Washington. Talking with him, you imagine the era: the excitement, the adventure, the almost boundless spirit. America was it. We were the most industrious, creative, sacrificial and accomplished people in the world. New York was—still is, really—the world’s capital.
At parties, Peter was always the one at the piano, and he can play anything, from Chopin to what he calls, in hushed-but-comic tones, “bar music.” He plays beautifully.
Peter’s wife, Alma, worked in intelligence during the war. She was as accomplished and in-demand as Peter. When I first met her she was blind, bound to a wheelchair, and had trouble speaking, but the mind (and some of the spirit) was still there. I last gave her Communion before Christmas. She died a few weeks later.
Up to about two years ago, she and Peter lived in the same apartments, until she got too ill for Peter to care for her on his own. She was moved into a home a few miles away to which Peter traveled twice daily, once in the morning and once in the late afternoon, to be by her side and keep her company, to do small things for her. In other words, he loved her.
By the time she died, Peter had worn himself out with her care; a few weeks later he had a stroke. He’s recovered, but the doctors don’t want him to play Chopin anymore. Peter is a perfectionist and the complexity of Chopin gives his failing fingers fits and this upsets him. “I have to stick to bar tunes, now,” he said last week with a laugh.
Here’s my favorite piece by Frederic Chopin, his Nocturne No. 15 in F minor (Op. 55/1), played skillfully by Idil Biret. The halting, almost unsure quality of the first several bars moves me. I like to think of Peter playing it in New York, at the end of an evening long ago, with Alma at his side, the lights of the city illuminating the terraced Babylonian skyline of that era’s apartment buildings.
Like all of Chopin, the piece has a timeless quality, like we have all the time in the world, like Chopin took dictation from the Kingdom of Heaven. Click the play button and turn up the volume.
Photo: Chrysler Building by Rob Gardiner. Click image for a larger view.