by Cindy Hasz
American Reporter Correspondent
San Diego, Calif.
July 29, 2002
LESSONS FOR ALL FROM LEPERS OF MOLOKAI
SAN DIEGO -- This time the Veal Marsala took us away ... not to Paris, or to Florence but to the island of Molokai. Another coincidence in our strangely interwoven lives. We'd both been there though she had not gone to the leper colony.
I could not have stayed away.
I was young but drawn inexplicably to the lapis lazuli bay where thousands of lepers had drowned, thrown over board from arriving boats into the cold waters just off the shores of this enchanted Hawaiian island. Flying on a small, twin-engine Cessna I'd chartered from Maui, I was obsessed with the disease that had drawn forth the special mercies of Father Damien, a priest who so loved those afflicted that he lived with them and eventually died with them, overcome with the same flesh-wasting disease they suffered from.
I visited his grave and the little white wooden church he built on the tip of the peninsula above the place where so many had died. I heard many voices that day, whispering, telling me their stories and asking me to help those that are likewise frightening to society and rejected; those that are sent off to little islands of exile where they will die in loneliness with only memories of a life that no longer exists.
Years later, I'd find myself working with the elderly.
There are similarities. Old age scares people like leprosy used to scare everyone in the civilized world. Most of us don't want reminders that we are mortal and bound to fade away. Instead of the magic of wisdom in our elders most see only deterioration of flesh.
There's a cure now for Hansen's disease. But there is no cure for old age. No cure for the despair I see etched on faces that line the halls of nursing homes. Sons and daughters look away, not wanting to face the fact that their parents are becoming needy children again and not knowing how to incorporate that neediness into already overwhelmed lives.
Doctors write prescriptions and order tests but cannot spend time enough to give the healing balm of friendship. Friends are gone and those left are sick and dying.Looking in the mirror is a daily torture. I have seen them steel themselves up for that moment when they are face to face with the wrinkled stranger in the mirror and the truth that they still find hard to believe; that life is almost over.
There is a great weariness that settles on the aged as they see their health like a shoreline slowly eroding and sometimes falling away suddenly into the sea. A great loneliness and primal fear chills deeply as support systems, one after another, fail. It is a weariness that eats holes in the soul until, like leprosy, they must withdraw, even from themselves in order to maintain any dignity. We as a society must not abandon them to these islands of exile. Surely there is often a time when the family cannot care for their aged, infirm loved ones. The options are not plentiful. Most people end up going into a nursing home. But the difference is made when family members and friends still keep their elder loved one as an important part of their lives.
Go and see them. Bring the children and grandchildren to visit. Take them out in the car if they are able. Go for a drive, for ice cream, for a few hours at the beach or back to the house to have a meal with everyone. Spend time with them on the patio of wherever it is they are living. Read to them, make sure they have music in their rooms.
I just saw a gentleman this week whose son made sure he had his favorite jazz CD's: Count Basie, Billy Holiday, Charlie Parker. Another kept her mother in chocolates, another in wine and another brought the family dog on a regular basis.
It doesn't have to be a big thing, flowers are great. A good cup of coffee once in while. The main thing is GO! Don't be afraid. You can't solve all their problems, and in fact they don't even want you to. What you can do is be there with them.
And that support makes all the difference in the world, as it will to you when you stand on your own white cliffs looking out to the azure sea.
Cindy Hasz is a nurse and writer living in San Diego. She can be reached at email@example.com