Here's something I can't quite figure out about us humans: how we can know something, and not know it, at the same time. This is especially apparent with our use of time. We go scooting around doing what we do, operating more or less by the seat of our pants.... Then one day an "event" occurs, and something that's been quietly with us all along -- or somebody -- has changed noticeably, maybe left for good. "Uh, that was fast," we say, puzzled, not quite knowing how we got from one side to the other.
And one thing that is going on under our noses is that our 70- and 80-somethings are slipping away. These are the people who called all the shots when I was a kid. They're the ones who worried about Hitler, Communism, Elvis's hips, the bomb, and long hair. They've experienced things intimately that the rest of us can only try to imagine. They've seen whole eras -- and stages of life -- come and go, and they understand a good deal about human motivations and pursuits. They've lived a long time, and they have a lot of stories to tell.
They've been aging for some time now, more or less gracefully, usually independent and active. But there's a point where people start to withdraw from the general scene, where they're becoming preoccupied with the business of letting go. And what a business it is! Deep pleasures are there for the healthier and the wiser and the luckier, but from what I see it's mostly not too easy. I see people trying to cope with the anxieties and frustrations of major illnesses and disabilities. Grieving and loneliness come with the inevitable and relentlessly occurring deaths of friends. People who can't really see or hear or complete a coherent thought can become very isolated. They need desperately to be connected -- but they're slipping away.
And when people leave, they _leave_. Now is the time to express our love for those we love, and to have the conversations we really want to have. There's no avoiding it -- time's flying.
This is serious stuff. This is no time for aimless chatter, self-absorbed noodlings, or unfettered monologues -- for anybody. The satisfactions of real conversation don't happen without real listening, and real listening is a skill that eludes most of us some of the time. It requires a quiet space in the mind where others' words can safely dock for a moment before being processed, and it requires a certain amount of simple curiosity.
Of course, our interests or social skills may not be up to directing a conversation (if it needs it) along sensible lines. Not everybody is to our liking -- but many people _are_ to our liking, and it makes sense to take advantage of their company and counsel while we still have the chance.
So, what kinds of questions would I ask while I still could? Here's a sample list. Did you go hungry during the Depression? What kind of teenager were you? Were you in love with Frank Sinatra? Why have you never talked about your days on the Western front? What did the great-grandparents die of? Is it really true that you made gelatin molds and then called them salad? What kind of baby was I? Do you feel like you're the same person you were at 18, or was your youth so long ago it feels like it belongs to someone else? Are regrets inevitable, and how does one come to terms with them?
But we can't ask these questions very easily of people who are preoccupied with the business of letting go. They're often not as accessible as they once were, and the rest of us can only try our best to hear and support.