Wisdom appears in our lives in many ways, at times clothed in a teacher’s uniform, a close friend’s advice, a book or a judge’s ruling. A learned man or woman is not always cloistered off in an ivory tower, or at the helm of a corporate behemoth. Once in awhile, wisdom is discovered deeply hidden among the pleats of a lengthy conversation, possibly with a stranger or a child.
This much I have learned: it is always worthwhile to pay close attention because gems of insight are everywhere to be found – even if disguised in wrinkles and orthopedic shoes. Especially if you happen to find yourself talking about breast cancer with a 94 year-old man – as I did the other day.
I was well into a conversation with L., about his latest shmoozers’ meeting, the newest residents in the building, and my plans post-recovery, when he changed course and asked about OJ. I wasn’t sure what he knew, so I hesitated at first. Never one to shy from honesty, nor the kind of guy (as far as I could tell) to resort to euphemism, L. wasn’t about to start now. He quickly cut to the chase by asking directly about her prognosis.
L. asked such astute and well-informed questions, that I felt as if I was speaking to a friend closer to my own age. It struck me that he obviously knew quite a bit about the topic. So I asked, how do you know so much about cancer, were you ever diagnosed yourself? Indeed he had struggled with the illness, undergoing an operation many years ago. If I thought that was end of it, I was sorely mistaken.
With no trace of bitterness, anger or sadness, L launched into an account of his immediate family’s history of cancer. It was shocking to hear how pervasive and extensive a toll it had taken: His father died from cancer when L. was in his 20s, but that was only the first of many subsequent diagnoses; a sister died, his brother, his sister-in-law, and others, the deaths spanning half a century. He reflected on the fact that had current treatments been available back then, many of his relatives would have likely survived.
So there we were, L. sitting straight in his swivel chair, attentively peering at me from under his visor cap; and I, half-lying on the couch, taking a quick glance around the room every so often, noticing the weathered books and piles of letters, pill boxes, family photographs, his wife’s paintings, calendars and a great many tchotchkes. Mementos from an earlier time, markings of a life lived fully and with broad interests.
Though L. and I would not be close neighbors on the age spectrum, our commonality – at least in this conversation – far outweighed our differences. Certainly, if there was a seed of wisdom that L. had subtly planted into my mind and soul, it was this: there is much to be gained from listening to the struggles of others who have walked a similar path before; and from sharing with those who genuinely care for our – and our family’s – well-being.