I get there and the 97 year-old, retired filtration equipment distributor and Jewish mystic Lou Levine is in the garden shade, nose deep in the Book of 101 Poems, 67 poems in.
Lou smiles, serene.
I am enthralled, not just because poetry and song have inspired this remarkably happy man for nearly a century, but because his darling daughter Naomi tells me that even though her Dad may or may no longer understand the text he adores, he likes to examine the words.
Lou licks the tip of his finger and turns the page like a boss. Naomi and I giggle. He is so content, so at ease, I can’t help but wonder: maybe growing old is better than we think?
After his book, I read a poem out loud, George Eliot, no less. After the requisite oohs and ahhs, Lou turns his dreamy eyes to the miniature waterfall, opens his mouth and starts to sing. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot warbles out, in English and then Yiddish, his gabby, never-at-a-loss-for-words mother tongue.
Naomi and I sing along, in apparent, flawless harmony. Our voices soar alongside a visiting flock of gulls, as we flank Lou, on the edge of our green, plastic chairs, in the back of a small, marvelously non-institutional Montreal hospital. Our audience is rapt: ducks, fish, birds, lily-pads in the pond, a plastic loon I thought for sure was real, and a few, daydreaming patients popping wheelies in their chairs. In long-term Palliative Care, Lou is fantastically well looked-after, and the staff is as kind as you hope and pray they would be. It’s a better place than most, to sing your final encore and finish the last chapter of your favourite book.
I can see myself here one day, if need be. If I am as lucky as Lou.
Lou’s overworked doctor drops by to ask how he is feeling today. Love for you, is his snappy retort. He smiles, a signature dazzler, and we watch her cares fly away, as she melts, into a pool at his feet.
We all love you, Lou, she says.
I fill with joy because it is so precisely true. I laugh at my self-serving desire to amaze him with something really deep, to tell him that love is the answer to life’s most difficult questions, but this canny centenarian already knows.
Instead I ask, why does everyone love you?
I love them, he explains. You’re a darling girl.
I choke. The last person to call me a girl was my late Dad. I try my best to seem nonchalant when I ask: you got any fatherly advice?
Not at all. He smiles.
I laugh, and my heart floods. I tell him that my Dad died almost three years ago, and Lou’s sympathy is so pure, that before I know it, my head lays down to rest on his frail shoulder. Like magic, his wispy-haired head tilts and lays on mine.
I can hardly believe the sweetness of the moment.
I reach over and take Lou’s hand in mine. He squeezes it.
A minute goes by, then five or six.
I like holding your hand, he says.
What are you thinking? I need to know, I sit up to ask.
A duck quacks. Or was it the loon?
Lou laughs slowly, brilliantly, and with utter confidence, says: I’m thinking it’s great to be outdoors.
Special shout out and thanks to Lou’s fabulous companion Dianna Palamarek, who brought her visiting brother to the garden to meet him, on her only day off.
And to Naomi, for being the best daughter and person I know.
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