If you ask my opinion on what is missing in our society today, I would say the major component that is remarkably absent is tribal unity. This unity, this tribal connection, this deeply rooted desire of human beings to be together, to commune, to live and love as a whole group, to stand witness to each and every delicate, fragile and ultimately so very precious life….. To stand witness of birth, life, and death.
This isn’t to say that I am going to run off and join some commune in the boondocks, and live out my days farming quinoa and chanting African rhythms every Friday night and changing my name to Sunbeam. Far from it. It is to say, though, that we humans, and more specifically, we North American humans lack a very basic component in our day-to-day life. To live as a whole unit with our fellow human beings.
And no where is it more apparent to me, than in our entrustment of our old people. Gone are the days of the obligation of taking in our elders, into our own homes and caring for them to their death. Hell no… We are quick to shuttle them to homes, we are hesitant to trust our own instincts to care and nurture for these people who sometimes have deep-rooted wisdom and family ties. We are sometimes incapable of coming to aid those who need it most. Jobs, children, lack of space in our homes, divorce, finances. All reasons, all valid reasons, yes. But did the very same people 100 years ago have some, if not many of the same reasons? Perhaps they did… And yet, Grandpa would come to live with his oldest son after his wife passed away. Aunt Martha, the spinster, would pack her bags and move to her great-niece’s house to stay the summer, and never leave. Grown children would foster these elders, and in return would reap the benefits ten-fold sometimes. An on-hand babysitter whenever was necessary. Someone to help with the laundry. A story teller to charm the children on snowy evenings.
I am sure many of these live-in situations were responsible for family arguments, long term resentments, and bitterness. The drudgery of illness, the animosity of crotchety family members, the accountability of caring for someone so frail and yet so benignly petulant probably made many women and men alike regret the decision to care for these people.
And yet, who are we to forsake these Elders? We all know, in Native ways, the Elders were acknowledged as leaders, were revered for their wisdom and were cared for with love and good intention to make their last days on earth peaceful and rewarding to them as well as to all others in the tribe. Elders told the stories of long ago around the fire. Elders were in charge of teaching young warriors. Elders showed the best ways to dry berries and cure leather.Elders were listened to and revered.
Don’t get me wrong. I know, as well as you do, we are who we are in our own society. In many ways we are so much more fortunate than those gone before us. So many comforts. So many indulgences and so many luxuries unknown to our forebearers. And our elderly, our sick and our frail, we have the option of ultimate care through long-term nursing homes. Proper medical attention. Safety and peace. And a 45 minute visit every second Sunday afternoon, dragging our reluctant children in tow.
Am I up to the task? I ask myself this so many times. I am staring down the barrel of 40, and I know this, that one day, my own parents will be frail and weak. They will need medical care, they will need help and guidance. Will I step up to the plate? Will I choose a home for them to live in? Or will I concede to tribal unity, will I go a different direction and bring these people, these wonderful caring people who raised and loved me into my own home? Will I give them all the comforts and love they need until their dying day? Do I have that inner strength to give back all that I was given? This, I don’t know.
But I do know that in my own elderly days, as a doddering wisened woman, wrinkled and cackling, telling my own eyebrow-raising stories to my grandchildren, that I would prefer the option of my last days to be one that is surrounded by the people who love me best in the whole world…..