I go to visit Rose at her assisted-living facility once a week. She is 98, tiny and frail, semi-blind and semi-deaf. She can shuffle slowly around with a walker, but needs a wheelchair to go beyond the building. As she breathes she makes a high peeping sound in the back of her throat, an effect of the cancer in her thyroid.
Rose bullies me mercilessly when i wheel her through London Drugs (“stop, STOP! I said turn left are you an IDIOT?!”). She is probably not unaware of the sympathetic looks people give me as I try my best to patiently follow her directions. I am so humbled by the kindness people show to her in her most enraged moments. Still, strange as it sounds, I really do like Rose and she is getting to like me. I perversely enjoy her company.
What I learn most from Rose, what scares me speechless, is the high price of judgement. Rose can rant on for hours (if i don’t redirect her) about how mean, stupid, and incompetent people are. Rose lives in a world of harsh dualism where people are only valued, and only value themselves, by comparison to others. In Rose’s world the most important thing is not to be kind, but to be right.
I wonder as she goes on, about how mean and stupid and thoughtless and incompetent everyone is, whether she actually believes she is above them all, or whether underneath all her scorn she really thinks she is all of those things, but can only absolve herself by comparison. It is no different from the endless litany of complaint i hear around me all the time. I have a flawless instinct for sitting on trains and ferries beside angry whiners, who can only find satisfaction in enumerating the shortcomings of everyone else. They seek each other out and bond over their perceived superiority. It is so exhausting. I always carry earplugs to screen out the poison.
Yesterday after I visited Rose, I was listening to an interview on CBC with a 90-yr-old woman who claims to have had many near-death experiences. She described them as lovely and gentle, and wants to tell everyone not to fear the reaper. She talked about all the wonderful people young and old who she has met and worked with, and described all the people of Winnipeg as incredibly kind. She was positive and lyrical, filled with good humour and grace. I couldn’t help but (ha ha) make the comparison, and I thought, no wonder she seems so fearless. No wonder she finds even dying to be sweet. I want my dying to be sweet. I fall prey to judgement and envy, but I don’t want to die with blame on my lips and disappointment in my heart. I don’t want to be a grouchy old woman.