Vernon and Mary were the most unlikely pair.
Residents of a long term care facility, neither with many family members around, and both having already lived an entire lifetime or two when it comes to experience, love, tragedy and loss, they somehow found in one another exactly what they needed to live these last years of their lives. She’d roll down the hall in her wheelchair to fetch him for lunch, or he’d save a place for her at one of the round tables. Others noticed, wondered, probably even gossiped, amused at the thought of these two nonagenerians loving one another.
And yet they did. Like two teenagers. Pulse racing a bit whenever they saw one another and a quiet joy radiating from each of them as they shared life together, in whatever way the could.
Only now…Mary has died. And once again, Vernon is left grieving.
Loving is a courageous thing, you know. Because loving anyone with some depth, and certainly loving as Vernon and Mary did…well, it leaves you open to such devastating heartbreak.
After having meant to for a long time, I finally watched the documentary Blackfish this last week. Released in 2013, Blackfish explores the much darker side of SeaWorld and similar organizations, mostly by examining the life of Tilikum, an enormous killer whale, still alive and in captivity, who was captured in the late seventies, at about age 2, off the coast of Puget Sound.
The most fascinating part of the film, for me, was an interview with a marine biologist who spoke to the social nature of orcas (killer whales) and dolphins, both. These animals, they are even more emotionally complex than human beings, science is learning. They actively need each other, and do not have any desire to live apart from their family units. “Their entire sense of self is distributed among the group,” the marine biologist noted. I paused the film for a moment at that point, stunned at the power of her statement.
Their entire sense of self is distributed among the group.
How profoundly different this is than our North American notions of rugged individualism, of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps (if you have bootstraps), of being “self-made.”
Not a one of us–not a single one–has gotten to where we are, good or bad, truly on our own, despite any ideas we might have to the contrary. We are indebted to the entire world from our morning coffee to our evening nightcap, and we stand on the hardworking backs of men, women and children who we far too often forget to name and count among the things for which we express gratitude.
We speak of being “blessed,”–and maybe we are–but that blessedness has come because the life experiences of others have infused, influenced and inspired our own life experiences. Also, sometimes, we’re just damn lucky.
We need each other. Vernon and Mary knew this, I think, and so far from isolating themselves in their loneliness and fatigue and illness, they risked reaching out, forging a connection with one another.
We need each other. Orcas know this, their very beings programmed to stick together, come what may.
Why is it often so difficult for us to see?
For people of Christian faith, the season of Lent began yesterday–Ash Wednesday. Between now and Easter there are faithful all over the world who use this time to focus on their relationship with God in a more full and intentional way. Some claim that “giving up” a vice of one sort or another accomplishes this. Others claim that “adding to” their lives a spiritual practice or physical discipline does the trick. Still others have been so harmed by the Church that it all seems archaic and useless.
What I’d like to see is as a Lenten focus is a renewed commitment to life together–a recognition of how much we need one another, even (and perhaps especially) when we think we don’t.
If Vernon, his poor heart so sad again, could have risked it…can’t we? If orcas, dubbed “killers,” (when really perhaps we just make them that way), know deep in their bones the futility of a life lived apart, could we at least try to figure it out?