Some years back, Brad Pitt starred in a movie, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,’’ a tale of reverse aging in which the main character is born old and with physical limitations, gradually grows younger and healthier, and finally dies as an infant.
The movie is based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Both the written word and the film version require a suspension of disbelief, a willingness to believe the unbelievable, if only for a few moments.
I found the decision to suspend my disbelief over this particular tale worthwhile. The story is both fancifully far-fetched and comfortably familiar. In its way, it’s simply the story of human life. That Benjamin Button did it in reverse didn’t make it less that story.
I got to thinking about the process of living and dying recently when, on one day Nancy and I attended the funeral of a dear friend who died at 84, and the next day cared for a little girl born only last August. Perhaps it’s my overactive imagination, but I could see elements of the Benjamin Button tale in those two people, one beginning her story and the other finishing hers.
Our friend lived a long, active and adventurous life. She worked hard and well. She played as hard and as well. She married a man who shared her life for 59 years. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she and her husband shared that part of the journey, too.
It was sad, heartbreakingly so, to watch her struggle with her disease, to see her lose weight and strength, to see her needing a cane or a walker as things progressed. In the time we watched her decline, we rarely saw her complain, except in a joking way, about what was gradually being taken from her life.
Toward the end, the last time we visited, she had just finished a round of treatment that involved what they called a gamma knife. It targeted spots on her brain, and after the treatment, she was unable to move one leg. Her husband carried her, as you would an infant – or a spouse to whom you’d vowed “in sickness and in health.’’ When we visited that time, Nancy, always the nurse, encouraged our friend to move her leg. We praised her when she could raise it the tiniest bit. She died not too many days later, and I thought a lot about our visit as we drove home.
The day after the funeral, we cared for one of our great-granddaughters, as we’ve been doing for a couple of months now. She will be six months old in a matter of days, so we’ve spent full days with her at that age when infants began to attempt all sorts of new physical things. We must carry the little child everywhere still, but each day it seems she finds some new thing to try. We hover, encouraging her efforts, praising even the most modest of successes. When she started coming to our home, she couldn’t roll over. She barely made a noise except to purr when she took a bottle or cry when she was hungry, wet or tired.
The day after our old friend’s funeral, it struck me that our little girl rolls from stomach to back effortlessly. Seems like just yesterday she didn’t even know she wanted to do that. In the time she’s been around, she’s perfected the knack of grabbing things and pulling them to her mouth, usually hitting the mark the first time. She holds her own bottle. She coos and babbles happily, sometimes seeming to talk to toys or books, other times just chattering to herself.
She isn’t able to crawl yet, but she wants to, desperately, and she works at it. As she tries, we encourage her to use her elbows, to pull with an arm, to move a leg. She’ll get it soon. That’s how kids progress.
It’s such fun to watch this tiny person grow, just as it was so terribly sad to watch our old friend fade. It’s all part of the human condition, I know. I’m blessed to be able to share it.