A commentary on our Turkey Trip with Nedime. May 10th –May 31stmountainsphoto
The term ‘ Moments of Being’ was used by Virginia Woolf to describe particularly intense brief moments in which everyday life was transcended and a deeper more spiritual reality was apprehended. What we will remember from our magnificent trip , more than the beauty of mosques and monuments or the sights of nature ,will be such moments often involving human contact of a genuine and intense form in which a hidden aspect of a person’s character is spontaneously revealed.
During our bus ride Nedime confided in us some episodes of her courting and marriage which were particularly touching. Another time our bus was stopped by the police who asked us to give a ride to a young woman who had missed her bus ride. She bought us a big bar of chocolate and shared with us bits and pieces of her life. During our stay in a local home the elderly grandfather confided that on his trip to Mecca he had managed to remain in hiding at the holy site for 3 extra months managing to return with another load of tourists, hidden out of sight in the bus. Finally as we were leaving the home of our overnight stay the elderly grandmother was pouring out water from a tea kettle. When I inquired about the meaning of this gesture I was told that the gently flowing water symbolized the hope that the rest of our trip would flow as smoothly.
But perhaps the most intense ‘moments of being’ were my observation of the relationship between two of our travelers Fred and Sylvia.
The catalogue describing the trip requirements states the following: ’this trip is only for physically fit and healthy travelers and is not appropriate for travelers using wheelchairs walkers or other mobility aids. Agility and balance are required for boarding, disembarking and walking on deck during our gullet cruise’
Thus I was quite surprised to see arriving in the Armada Hotel in Istanbul a smiling and chatty gentleman with walker and wheelchair escorted by a very attractive and vibrant young woman.
As I got to know Fred during many fascinating conversations during our trip together what emerged was his extraordinary courage, his will to live life to the fullest draining his limited supply of energy in spite of his being afflicted by a deadly incurable neurological disease, ALS, with a very grim prognosis. He never complained when part of our journey had to be denied him. He never felt sorry for himself and would usually regale us with his characteristic good humor about some amusing incidents which had befallen him while sitting at a café with his companion. His unbelievable optimism was allied with a capacity to give freely of himself which in my 50 years of medical practice I have never encountered before in a man suffering from a fatal disease. His generosity is awesome. On one occasion one of our travelers required a brief hospitalization late one evening because of GI symptoms. To my amazement Fred already retired, having gotten wind of what was unfolding had gotten up and wanted singlehandedly to accompany the patient to the hospital saying that because of his illness he knew how to manage the intricacies of hospital emergency rooms.
I will never forget the vision of Fred in his wheelchair during our school visit having the time of his life surrounded by laughing and giggling children eager trying to reach out to get some of the wristbands and balloons he had brought along as gifts, inflating them and putting them on the head or around the neck of delighted children. He had as much fun as they did. What a lesson in life!
Yet Fred is so buoyant that he could sometimes forget his limitations. An avid hiker skier and rock climber before his illness he once tried to hoist himself and put his head through a life buoy over the side of our boat. Fortunately some of us jumped up and caught him in time!
Perhaps the most moving moments were those involving interactions between Fred and Sylvia. The two had a deep loving and caring attitude for each other. Because of the harmony and tight connection they often did not need words to communicate with each other. Sylvia knew how to entertain him patiently playing games of cribbage and backgammon teasing him when she won. She cared for Fred like a devoted mother looking after her injured child. At other times it seemed like Fred was caring for Sylvia trying to soften the blows of harsh reality. But there was also a third aspect to their relationships. They would a times break out into irrepressible laughter and giggle like two teenagers oblivious of what was happening around them, two children playing in the sand without a care in the world.
In one instance Fred had decided to trying to swim off our gullet. In spite of his determination and his life jacket he was beginning to be above his head, Sylvia watching over him obviously concerned had a very mobile expression in her face rapidly alternating between concern, then moving close to him unobtrusively to steady him and rescue him without humiliating him and at the same time laughing to comfort him and to give him courage. The shift in emotions took only a few seconds but it was for me a beautiful mirror of her empathy, love and support for him.
My last snapshot of the pair occurred during an archeological museum visit. Nedime was describing to the group the details of a number of Roman Sarcophagi. While listening to her erudite lecture I heard peals of laughter coming from another part of the museum. I assumed these were some young school children probably bored by the exhibit and trying to entertain themselves. When I went over to investigate I came across Fred and Sylvia having the time of their lives full of hilarity and, unable to contain their mirth. What was going on ? It was only when I saw one of the pictures they took that I understood what was happening. (picture) Sylvia was standing to the side of a statue missing an arm probably the goddess Aphrodite, and she was putting her own arm in just the right position of the stump creating the illusion of a full live arm. I pause on this image because I believe that in an uncanny way behind the joke, it silently offered a powerful metaphor of the beauty and power of their relationship.
Fred because of the ravages of his illness, having lost much of the power in his legs is a bit like the statue with broken arms and here is Sylvia generously lending her youth her love and her life to enable the statue to be complete once more and to regain what it had lost through the unforgiving ravages of time. This playful game captures the essence of their admirable and loving relationship. It is a model not to be soon forgotten. Fred is indeed fortunate to have the companionship of this extraordinary young woman. Although human in form she has the grace of a gazelle as she climbs arduous paths, bare feet or jumps from the high bridge of our ship disappearing under water swimming like a nymph, or assumes like a goddess a majestic yoga pose high on a rock
A final commentary is necessary about Fred’s moving attitude towards death. He accepts its inevitability perhaps sooner than he would wish but with the conviction that he has lived his life fully without regret, having done more things than ten average men, climbed more mountains, seen more countries, tried more dangerous endeavors and survived critical injuries which would have felled most of us. He is continuing to spend a great deal of time giving to others and feeling fulfilled. Yes we can say he has lived a full and rich life. It is quite remarkable that in these powerful moments his main concern is about easing the grief of those loved ones he must inevitably leave behind. This is a true human spirit at its most noble. If there is a God in Heaven, he will look down on this man and say to himself: ’you know I have to admit I may have fucked up many times but this one I did right. He will be one of the righteous and live an eternal life with me. The throngs of people he touched and loved will never forget him. I feel fortunate to be one amongst them.
In Loving tribute. June 6th 2011