Thursday, May 02, 2013

A Belated Eulogy for Eleanor

I was one of the few students at school who loved studying statistics. All the knowledge that you learn about people is amazing. But like many people, the parts of my life that are the most exciting to me are those that don’t fit well into statistical description.

One such extraordinary part of my life was my friendship with Eleanor. When I met her, she was 85 years old and very sharp. A part-scientist/part-painter with a PhD in English, Eleanor often went for walks and spent a lot of time outdoors sitting on her walker observing nature. It was during her daily jaunts that I began to spend time with her. We immediately hit it off as we discovered that we both had a poetic appreciation of nature, and we both loved art and science.

I met her on my own circuitous journey, which landed me a job as an activity assistant in an assisted-living facility in Mississippi. My wife, a native Mississippian, and I moved there from Seattle after we jumped off of society’s escalator of pre-planned milestones to follow our own personal goals. Within weeks of landing in small-town Mississippi, I was teaching a seated version of Tai Chi to residents of the assisted-living home.

Those classes were well attended, particularly by two residents, Franny, whom I wrote about earlier, and Eleanor. There were many moments that the three of us sat in Eleanor’s room when I felt like I was in a Samuel Beckett play. It was during these occasions that I came to know that Eleanor did not think she “understood” life but sought to understand it, like many of Beckett’s characters. This pursuit of trying to understand life that we shared was probably brought on because of traumas we had each carried like a heavy backpack on a long journey. But they pushed us to explore life and compelled us to share notes about our own unique journeys.

Often this sharing took place in her room where we would sit for hours discussing philosophy, psychology, the arts, and anything that helped us understand the trauma we had experienced. One of the things I loved about Eleanor was that she engaged many people to share whatever they knew about life, and a number of people visited her because of her openness to their experiences. Often others would join in and we would have rich and unexpected conversations.

Some of those discussions included deeply religious people who would tell us their take on the meaning of life, which usually involved heavy dogma. This often disappointed Eleanor and annoyed me, as some people went so far as to claim that my role in her life was to help her find Jesus. Independently, Eleanor and I had come to the conclusion that there is no knowing, only seeking.

Eleanor and I couldn’t relate to those who claim to “know” what life is about, like many religious people and statisticians. I believe as people who had to walk with trauma, she and I didn’t have that feeling of certainty about much in life. We lived in uncertainty and were caught in between statistics and religion.

Five years after Eleanor’s death, I haven’t met anyone quite like her, but I am still carrying my backpack and proudly upholding the values that we shared. I looked up the origin of her name, and of its many possible meanings, the one I think is most suitable to describe her is from the Latin root of the verb lenire, “to soothe or to heal.”

If anyone chooses to write about me after I die, I hope they have as difficult a time as I had in conveying a glimpse of Eleanor.