O’Connor’s farm will be preserved (copy)

Bert Keller recently revisited Flanner O'Connor's (pictured) story, "Good Country People." There is value in telling and reading stories over and over again, he said. 

“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” A mild protest that usually follows a tall tale! But some recent experience with old people with dementia has made me think about it in a different way.

A few years back, my role as a hospice chaplain took me to the bedside of a 93-year-old man. Alzheimer’s had altered his brain function for the last six years of his life. Now he was dying of leukemia. His two daughters were there and they talked about their father while his wife sat in a wheelchair by his bed and held his hand. She also had Alzheimer’s and could no longer carry on a conversation. She just kept repeating, tears flowing, “We’ve been married for 73 years, you know.”

It was a kind of mantra. It seemed to contain for her all the stories, the joys and sorrows, struggles and triumphs, of a shared lifetime. Could she remember the stories? There was something very important from her past that she knew, and she was inhabiting that very important thing in the present, sitting by that bedside telling it, and the tears showed that she was aware what was going to happen next in the story.

“We’ve been married for 73 years, you know,” as if naming that narrative (and the tears) contained everything and said it all.

A close family member spent six days with us not long ago. In the early stages of what has been diagnosed as Alzheimer’s, he seemed to be living behind a veil that was still transparent but slightly opaque. He repeated the same story with enjoyment again and again. After each meal he would say, 'Aunt Somebody always said, 'Thank you, I’ve had a sufficiency.'" We shared a laugh.

He repeated more than once some of the deeply grooved family stories his father used to tell, as if he knows at some place in his mind, a story ought to be, must be, repeated, turned over again and again for its meanings to reveal themselves, held at different angles to the light, respectfully attended to for what it holds. Things that matter take time and should be revisited. Like family stories told and retold around the kitchen table.

Robert Mazzocco wrote in a poem:

“Family voices: You still can hear them,

ever so dimly, there in your own voice:

your father’s voice, even your mother’s voice.

The older we get,

the more you’ll hear them,

though no one else does. ...”

Poet Mark Nepo said in a workshop that the meaning stories express is too big for just one telling. We look at the same flower again and it delights us differently; we revisit places we have been, sometimes often been, and they speak to us each time, he said.

I remembered my grandparents’ generation visiting the cemetery regularly on Sunday afternoons where the family plot told them a hundred stories; I thought of places I go that repeat to me one story.

Never be afraid to hear or tell a story or read a poem more than once, Nepo said. Listen again and inquire into it differently and maybe more deeply each time.

Two years ago, I led a discussion of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People” for the 30th time, give or take. When teaching, I used the story for more than 20 years in seminars with medical students. This time, with different people, it spoke to me fresh and stirred new insight.

I had never thought before that all four actors in the story can be seen as parts of myself, each wanting something different and acting in their own way to get it. That idea played out in my imagination, and as I recognized my “inner Hulga,” I thought of ways I am purely reactive rather than original and proactive in my life, times I have projected a mirror-opposite reflection of things I hate or people I disrespect rather than acting out of the heart.

And the whole discussion with that bunch of friends lifted the familiar story off the page and taught me something I needed to know about myself. That could not have happened just the way it did if I had not read and thought about the story 30 times before.

A friend my age said that she is learning these days that accumulating new experiences is not what it’s all about. She’s done adding new stuff. But the practice of listening with fresh attention, seeing with original vision, being with friends and experiences in a sense that approaches oneness, that’s the way she wants to grow.

How do you do that? I think we develop those capacities by “staying with” stories, people, places. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Intuition and discernment direct us to the story or stories (and the people and places) that we return to dwell on. Some stories need to be left behind. Some need to be covered with forgiveness. Our inner sensor selects the stories that make us more happy and more true.

Could it be, just possibly, that that is the wisdom of Alzheimer’s? Maybe a person in his or her interior, hidden way, is learning to dwell on a story until that story indwells that person.

I think of the wisdom of Lottie Davie when I visited her in the hospital when she was in her 90s. “How are you, Mrs. Davie?” “Well, I think I just about wore out my 23rd.”

She had been saying the 23rd Psalm over and over to herself until the green pastures and still waters and the safe and abundant table were indwelling in her. I think she was one with the Psalm, and one with the shepherd.

Bert Keller and Bill Simpson write the occasional column, “Aging for Amateurs.” Keller, a retired minister and bioethicist, wrote this installment. Comments, questions and suggestions are welcome at agingforamateurs@gmail.com.