A writing friend and I are sitting in the sun at our local café. An older, harried-looking mum arrives with her little girl and dumps her bag with a sigh. The girl, all elbows and knees, runs over to the jungle gym and climbs up. The mum follows close behind, admonishing her to take care.
A second later, we hear a flat thud as something lands heavily on the sand. It’s the little girl. The mum scoops her up off the ground and carries her back to their table. ‘Susie! Susie!’ she cries out. ‘Are you okay?’ There’s a long, awful silence as the girl’s face contorts. Finally, she lets out a soundless cry of pain. The mum is on her knees in front of her, calling her name.
It looks like she’s had the wind completely knocked out of her in the fall and is struggling to get her breath. And all the while her mum is calling out: ‘Susie! Sue! Are you okay? Are you okay?’
To our relief, the girl’s chest expands, and she begins to cry properly. But the mum is still in panic mode and is now screaming her daughter’s name.
My friend and I call over, ‘It’s okay. She just needs time to recover.’ But the mum doesn’t register this. She is holding her daughter close to her chest and crying, ‘Susie! Are you ok?’
Then an elderly woman who’s been sitting at a table close by, gets up slowly. She walks calmly over to the mum and daughter and speaks in a low voice. Although we can’t hear the content, the tone is reassuring. She stands close to the pair, then reaches out and begins to rub both their backs in slow circles, all the while talking softly.
The mother’s body sags, she closes her eyes and tilts her head back in a moment of utter surrender and relief. My eyes prickle with tears as this gentle interaction unfolds.
Looking back on this moment, it seems to me that this woman’s grey hair, her stoop and her slowness lent a certain substance and heft to her actions. In moments of crisis, maybe we assign more weight to the words and actions of an elderly person, because of the mere fact of their aliveness. Their longevity in the face of the craziness of life offers us a sort of instinctive consolation.
Maybe we need elders in our lives to remind us to relax and take the next breath. We need grey-haired tribe members to stroke our backs and help us to calm down. And we need them to reassure us, with their living proof, that we can get through it. All of it.