This article was first published back in 2007. I dedicate it to my grandfather, whose birthday was August 24th – he would have been 93 years old. He taught me many lessons, but perhaps the greatest being a person’s life is more than what you see.
As the night grew cold, I found myself unable to read as my body shivered – causing the book to become unstable and unreadable for that matter.
I gathered a large woolen blanket from the foot of my bed and covered my frigid body – hoping for warmth so I could continue on with my reading. Just a few days prior, we all enjoyed a record heat wave and yet tonight the temperatures were well below freezing.
The grandfather clock struck midnight and yet my eyes remained alert, not yet ready to succumb to the heaviness of my tired eyes. There next to me was my wife – fast asleep like an angel wrapped in the warmth and security of layer after layer of softness.
Thankfully within minutes, I was again warm enough to continue reading without interruption.
A few pages in, I came across a passage from The Little Prince published back in 1943 by French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Though I came to realize his work was ultimately a children’s book, it managed to provide several profound and idealistic points about life and love. The passage read “L’ essential est invisible pour les yeux” – translation “what is essential is invisible to the eyes”.
A person’s life is more than what you see
I found myself reading this passage over and over again, not for a lack of comprehension, but because of its applicability when compared to life and everything we deem important. Funny how lessons designed more for a child are just as appropriate for the adults trying to teach them.
The next day was just as cold as the one before. Though temperatures were more seasonal now, a handful of days in the upper 60’s confused many birds who never headed south for the winter and some flowering bulbs who thought it was already time to re-emerge from the ground.
As for me, today was a day I wasn’t looking forward to. It was one of those occasions in life where forcing yourself to do something meant dealing with an uncomfortable reality, and not doing anything meant you were a coward. Either way, there was no bright side to the day’s events.
All the way down the freeway there was an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach – one which only intensified as I reached my final destination. There in front of me was a sign that read “Senior Living and Rehabilitation Center” – call it what you will, but to me it was nothing more than a nursing home with a fancy name.
As I made my way to the entrance, and my hesitation grew stronger, I kept reminding myself that being here was the right thing to do. I was greeted with a friendly smile and a kind voice upon entering the facility, something I didn’t quite expect. Secretly I hoped the remainder of my visit would be just as pleasant to deal with.
As the elevator doors opened to my floor of choice, I could procrastinate no longer. The kind and pleasant greeting I received upon my entrance was replaced instantaneously by faces of longing and despair, of fear and sorrow and even utter confusion as patient after patient begged me to take them home.
By the look on their faces, visitors were not commonplace, so when one did appear from behind the elevator doors it was cause for excitement. It was a reality one couldn’t imagine until you’ve seen it for yourself. I quickly made my way down the over-crowded hallway, in search of the reason for my visit.
Imprisoned by the chair you sit in
And there in room 228A sat an elderly man in a wheelchair, which had become his only means for propulsion – an imprisonment of sorts. I stood at the doorway as he gazed out a nearby window, appearing frail and emotionless – unmoved by anything going on around him.
It was obvious that time had become his enemy and his purpose in life had become insignificant even to himself. As the two of us sat there in silence, one thought continuously ran through my mind – Saint-Exupéry’s “what is essential is invisible to the eyes.”
Like the man beside me and the many others who made their way up and down the hallway, this latest chapter in his life was a pale representation of the years that came before. It’s easy not to see how some fought bravely and survived wartime and poverty – how others courageously left the security of their homeland to journey to America for a chance at a better life.
Many were mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, best friends and teachers. Some found fame and fortune, some worked two jobs to get by and others found happiness in celebrating 60 years of marriage with that special someone.
As I continued to look at the faces around me, I couldn’t help but wonder what their lives were like. Who was able to see what was still essential in the lives of those so many of us don’t have the time to remember and are so easily forgotten.
I left that day wondering what my own life would be like when I reached my later years. I began to realize that success and materials don’t really mean a hell of a lot when all is said and done. What matters is the “essential invisible” that lives within all of us. The part of ourselves that will outlast fame and fortune – popularity and fads. The qualities that will make you forever immortalized in the hearts and minds of those who were privileged to know you.
I can still see those things in the man in room 228A. What will people remember you for?