I witnessed a gift on Monday afternoon. A priceless gift.
The setting was a nursing home in Tasmania, Australia. Thirty-odd elderly men and women were seated in a common room, some sleeping, some staring vacantly, some fully engaged and alert. The event was a concert. A community choir of women in lilac blouses had come to perform a selection of songs from the early to mid 1900s. The tuneful melodies were actively received by the audience, as they internally engaged a lyrical journey back to their youth.
Sitting near to Gwen, Verna, and Sam, I watched their changing expressions as they heard performances of popular love songs from the 40s and toe-tapping classics from many a musical. Smiles. Laughter. Gwen commented loudly about the beauty of the music, occasionally singing along; Sam applauded before one song had finished, chortling heartily when he realized what he’d done. It was beautiful.
Though there were other chairs available in the hall, one man chose to sit on the arm of his wife’s recliner, throughout the entire concert. She was not lucid, but he was very aware of her presence, often gazing misty-eyed at her during the love songs, his hand resting softly on her knee. These are their golden years.
Then, the gift. It came, as gifts often do, unexpectedly.
After the choir had finished their repertoire, a staff member thanked them for coming, and said, “One of our residents has asked to sing a song for you.”
From the audience rose a slight man in a forest green sweater, pushing himself up on the arms of his walker and slowly making his way forward. He did not turn to face an audience of his peers, he gazed kindly at the choir and began to sing, “I love you.” His lilting voice, still clear, though weaker than it must have been when he was a man of 30, sang verse after verse, always returning to the refrain, “I love you.”
No one uttered a sound, so mesmerized were we by the song of this gentle man. It was much more than the song that captivated us, for this was no performance. This was a gift.
As he sang, his body trembled from the effort of standing. He put all his strength into his song.
Though he appeared weak in that moment, his voice was steady and clear.
Then, one of the choir members picked up the melody and joined him. Several more voices entered the song, and a sweet harmony rose. The choir received and reciprocated his gift, their voices gently rising to hold up his love song. His soft voice, still higher than theirs, sang on purely to the end.
All of the sudden, as simply as he’d begun, he had finished. His shoulders were shaking from the effort of supporting himself on his walker. One of the staff helped him to a chair.
The air felt thick, and my eyes burned salty as he took his seat. What had I just witnessed? And why did it affect me so?
Now, as I reflect on his song-gift, I wonder what experiences in his 90 years of life taught him to express love so courageously. Was he nurtured in love from his childhood, or did he learn to love through pain? Had his father modeled such vulnerability in the way he loved his family? Or did this man through loss learn not to miss an impulse to love?
I wonder what the world would be like if all of us dropped our self-protective guards and used our strength to genuinely and intentionally express love towards others.