Life, Death & Stories: The Wisdom of our Elders
My neighbour Ken loves to tell stories, and they’re never short, and I’m often too busy to give him time or listening. Yesterday I saw him in the front yard putting out his bins.
He’s in his 70’s and not moving as well as he did when he was younger, working a cane farm in northern Queensland. I walked over and helped him put them on the curb, then asked how he was… And I’ll admit, it wasn’t a genuine enquiry, it was more of a habitual supermarket how are you.
“Well, we’ve been busy. My sister died you see, so we had to fly up for her funeral.”
“Oh no, I’m so sorry to hear that Ken, that’s really sad.”
“Well, she was 83, she’d had a good life.”
He said it with the kindest, most accepting smile. And I could see it wasn't a happy-face façade; it was real and peaceful.
I’m mostly flittering from one thing to another and generally don’t have more than a couple of minutes to listen to Ken’s stories, but this time I stopped and settled in for what I knew was going to be a long one.
After a bit more chat about his sister’s life, he went on to his brother.
His brother was also dead.
He’d gone into hospital and never come out. He was a heavy drinker who'd developed a stomach ulcer, was admitted to hospital and died there.
And a Taipan got his father, but that’s not what killed him.
“He was waist deep in long grass and luckily it got him on the shinbone so the snake couldn’t get much of its venom into him. Saved his life. He got on his tractor and drove himself back to the house. We tied a tourniquet around his leg and bled the wound. That’s what you did in those days. Then Mum and my sister put him in the back of the car and started driving him to the nearest hospital. I went ahead to the neighbour’s phone, which was five kilometres away, to call for an ambulance. Dad didn’t have the snake with him so they gave him three antivenins to be on the safe side. Dad shook that hospital bed right over to the other side of the room, but he pulled through."
It was the car accident that killed him.
“I was on the tractor with Katherine (his daughter). I heard the crash and drove over as fast as I could. I tried to talk to Dad. His eyes were open and he was still breathing, but he wasn’t really responding. I tried to get him out, but a bit of metal from the front of the car had pierced him through his hip and into his stomach. It was when the Springboks were touring Australia and there were riots in Brisbane. You remember?”
I didn’t. I looked it up afterwards, he was referring to the South African rugby team's Australian tour in 1971 (I was born in 1976). There were protests from anti-apartheid groups, described by some as Bloody Mayhem.
“Well there was a group of police on their way down to Brisbane and they sorted it all out no worries.”
“The accident you mean?”
“Yes, they said there was nothing that could have been done. A major artery had been severed and there was no way we could have stopped the blood loss. Even if I’d been there as soon as it happened. It was one in a million they said.”
“Oh wow, so you were first on the scene at your father’s death?”
“Yes that’s right.”
“Was that traumatic for you?”
“Well, it wasn’t good, I was okay. It might have been for Katherine though. She was only three at the time.”
“Does she remember it?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t asked her.”
“Far out, that is an amazing story. So your parents are gone, and your siblings, which makes you the last man standing.”
He chuckled and looked kind of proud, “Yes, I suppose it does.”
Ken told me all this while leaning on one of the bins, to take the weight of his sore knees. And the whole time he seemed happy, peaceful and almost playful. As though telling these stories, and the pleasure of having someone to listen to them far outweighed the sadness of death.
I asked him if any of the deaths changed his view of life.
“Oh well, no, not really. It’s just life isn’t it? We’re all going to die after all. And that’s just the way it is.”
There was nothing at all defeatist about his response. It was said with the same peaceful smile that he wore while telling the rest of his stories.
I remember the day of my grandma's funeral, I was in pieces, trying desperately to hold myself together. My great aunt greeted me, and as a reaction to my emotional state she attempted to console me by telling me it was better this way, and that she lived a good life.
It didn’t console me at all. I wondered how she could really think that?
I'm a rookie when it comes to death and grieving. Four years on, I’ve developed some perspective and I can see that she was right, and that she had said it with the same wise smile that Ken was telling his death stories with.
There is vast wisdom that can't be found in books and universities. It comes instead from doing the time. And the only ones who know it are our elders, who've walked the path ahead.
And when we can slow down enough to listen, and drop our obsession with youth, they'll tell us stories.
Make time for the elders in your family and community. They will tell you things you'll need to know. Youth doesn't last, beauty fades and death is a definite.
True wisdom is accepting these as facts, and allowing them to become less important than the simple joys contained in small moments of connection and togetherness along the way.