This last weekend, I went to visit my mother, with my three children. They live in an old house in Arlesheim, a beautiful old city with a cathedral. My parents live together in an old house which used to be the bishop’s guesthouse.
As we got close, I drove up in front of the building, and pressed my horn as I usually do, as a greeting. When my mother leaned out of the window, my blood froze. What I saw reminded me of paintings I have seen of Jesus on the cross. I was looking into the eyes of death. She was pale, her hair was all over the place, and she looked 10 years older than her actual age of 87. She had such a deep frown on her face, that created such deep furrows that she was unrecognizable.
We drove around to park the car and then walked back to the house. The children enthusiastically rang the doorbell and ran up the old wide dark wooden staircase. My mother was at the top of the stairs, obviously in dire straits.
She just muttered a “hello,” in a weak, timid, and broken voice.
“What is going on, Mom?” I asked, trying to calm the panic I was feeling. “What is happening to you?”
“ I don’t understand this world,” she said. “Where have you been all these years? I haven’t seen you for so long.”
“Mom, come, let’s sit down. Let’s go to the living room.” I helped her walk over to the other room, which has a luscious oak parquet wooden floor. We could look through the windows over to the marketplace, with the old cathedral behind.
“I’m so alone,” my mother lamented. “It’s all because of this virus. I have to stay in the apartment with your father all day. I don’t have a life anymore, I just live in the bedroom and in this living room. I’m all alone. I used to go out, I went to the marketplace, I talked to the woman who has the organic food stall, I talked to all the farmers ladies, and the neighbors. That is what gave meaning to my day. But now I don’t get to do any of that. They have closed the market, and I’m not allowed to go out.” My mother pointed out of the window, at the empty marketplace.
“Look, there’s nobody there. It’s like a ghost town.”
She became more emotional and started to cry. “I don’t understand any of it… I don’t see you for years… Now the town is deserted… I’m all alone… I don’t see anything worth living for anymore…”
“Mom, it’s okay,” I responded, in my most soothing voice. The children were sitting quietly next to me, looking a little shocked. “Actually, you saw us just a couple of days ago. Don’t you remember? And then we have Facebook, we can speak every day. And now we’ve come to visit you. The virus is soon going to be over, and then you can go out again.”
“ You don’t understand, Jan,” she replied. “I am of a different generation. I’m used to looking into other people’s eyes, where people touch each other, and they actually meet and greet when they are on the streets. Nowadays, people don’t even look up from these little electronic screens they carry everywhere. It’s not the same. It’s not the same as sitting in front of you and holding your hand. That is what makes life worth living for.”
We went on talking, backward and forwards, my mother and me. I tried to offer more and more reassurance and logical arguments that things would be all right. But she didn’t want any of it. Finally, I just looked into my mother’s eyes, I held her gaze, and she looked back. Several minutes passed. No one said anything. Finally, I asked the question. “Mom, what is worth living for, for you?”
She didn’t have any trouble answering this question immediately. “Look, I’m 87. What is worth living for is love, is being connected, being with people. This is what makes me feel alive, and gives meaning to my life. I need to share aliveness with other people.”
“Wow,” I said, surprised by her sudden energy. “What do you mean by that? What does it look like, to share aliveness in life with people?”
“It’s about being kind with each other, showing interest in each other. It’s about touching each other and helping each other. It’s about me giving my love to other people.” She put her hand to her heart, with an imploring look in her eyes. She started to loosen up, as she became more animated. Her shoulders were dropping down, and she became softer. “Yes,” she smiled. “This is what I’m looking for. It is so beautiful for me when you come to visit, so beautiful when we go out, and I can meet the neighbors, and share our life stories.”
“Mom, what are you afraid of?” I asked her. “What is the worst thing that can happen to you? Are you afraid to die?”
“ What are you talking about?” she replied. She was getting animated and irritated now. She raised her voice. “This is death, essentially. Living here, just the two of us. No connections. Everyone on their stupid phones. This is death. There is nothing alive about this. Nothing whatsoever.”
“ So,” I said to her. “If you’re not afraid of death if you’re feeling like this is what death is like, if this is being dead while alive, why don’t you take a risk? Would you be willing to do that?”
“I would be willing to risk my life,” she replied. “ How about you go to the marketplace tomorrow, and just sit there,” I suggested. “As you can see, there is no one there. Maybe every 10 minutes someone passes by. They will probably be stuck in their phones, worried about something, wearing a mask, and feeling afraid. So, Mom, what about if you were to just greet the people? Greet them from the bottom of your heart, send them your love, and point them to the beautiful skies that you are enjoying, and the bird song. Make people aware of the things that you feel are worth living for, and worth sharing.”
It was as if I had just unlocked a prison door. I had given my mother the permission she desperately needed. She became suddenly radiant. Now she had a huge smile on her face, very calm and content.
My mother was back again. The color change in her face, she lightened up, she relaxed her body position and became quite animated. “ Really?” she asked me, surprised. “Can I do that? Should I do that?”
“ Yes,” I replied. After all, I am a doctor. I have some knowledge of these things. “Go out there, and do it. Keep your 2 meters distance, and nothing bad will happen to you or anyone else. Those who are uncomfortable will wear their mask. “But if you don’t want to hide your smile, then why don’t you go out without one?”
She looked completely inspired. “You know what, Jan?” she said. “I will. I will do that.”
The next day, I called my father. They had indeed gone down together to the market, they took a walk there, and my mother became busy greeting people and sharing her happiness with others. My father told me she was completely changed.
As a doctor, and a professor of infectious disease at the university hospital, as someone who was written dozens of academic papers on infectious disease, you might be surprised to hear that I encouraged my own mother to go out in the marketplace without a mask. She knows that the purpose of her old age much better than I do. It is to share love and remind the people who are living in worries and digital isolation of what life can be like. To her, this was more important than living in isolation and fear.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Heart Based Medicine organization. They are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. They are the expressed opinion of the author for the sole purpose of educating the public regarding their health and wellbeing. Individual results may vary. Seek the advice of a competent health care professional for your specific health concerns.
Photo 01: ©Jan Bonhoeffer
Photo 02: ©youwwwill via Unsplash.com
Photo 03: ©Jan Bonhoeffer