Here’s another one of those in-between stories from my month-long trip to the USA in June: an unexpectedly sweet moment that has stayed with me since I’ve come home and one that you couldn’t hope for, plan for or wait for.
I was giving a presentation of my photographs at Horizon House in Seattle, Washington. Horizon House is a CCRC (Continuing Care Retirement Community) right in the centre of the downtown area of the city. In the UK we tend to think of retirement villages as being unobtrusive, low buildings often tucked away in leafy areas on the edges of towns or even in the countryside itself. In the US, I’m discovering, CCRCs are often high-rise developments in the hearts of cities and urban areas. They’re right there, proud and unapologetic, smack in the middle of all the buzz.
So Horizon House is one of these. A few blocks up from the water’s edge, and with views from its upper floors down to the water and the snow-capped mountains beyond, it sits amidst other high-rises, blending in with the city landscape and providing home to some 600 residents. One of the benefits of CCRCs is that, while you enter as someone who can live autonomously in one of the self-contained flats (they come in various sizes), you will have continuing care should you become less able to look after yourself. It’s all provided there, on site.
I was really looking forward to giving this particular presentation. I knew from my Seattle friends that Horizon House was the kind of place that retired academics, teachers, social workers, medics and other professionals tended to go to. That it was a community where lively debate was valued highly and indeed that many people moved there while they were still working, treating their apartments as just that: apartments from which to come and go each morning and evening. That it was anything but moribund.
And it did indeed have a great, ‘lifey’ feel to it when I walked in. Some CCRCs seem like Marriotts – somewhat corporate and emphasising above all their opulence and comfortable lifestyles. Horizon House was comfortable, but certainly no Marriott. The décor was nice but unassuming, though there was fabulously interesting artwork on the walls. Everywhere I looked there were small clusters of people, engaged in conversation, reading newspapers, companionably occupied.
My presentation went well, I think and hope. There was quite a lot of nodding (in agreement, not off to sleep, I hasten to add, though that’s always a hazard when your audience includes a sprinkling of 90+ year olds). Lots of hands raised in the Q&A and some great questions, probing me as to how and why I got into taking these sorts of photographs in the first place and whether I’ve discovered any patterns amongst the athletes in terms of their diet and lifestyle (I haven’t).
I showed a couple of photos of two athletes in the 85-89 year old age category. One of the athletes is from Turkey and the other from Greece. In the photos they have their arms around each other’s shoulders which, as I said to my audience, I always find moving since they are both very definitely of the age where there will have been periods in their lives when their countries might have had them on opposing armies, trying to kill each other. In fact, at the event where I was photographing them, I overheard them showing their linguistic skills off to each other. The Greek competitor counted up to 10 in Turkish, while his Turkish rival matched him by counting up to 10 in Greek.
After the talk, a tall and quietly spoken resident from Horizon House approached me, obviously wanting to say a few words. I’d guess he was in his late 80s, maybe early 90s. He said how much he’d enjoyed my presentation. Then he told me that he’d lived in Greece and in Turkey for a period during the 60s. I asked him what he was doing there. He said he’d been on the American bases. Having visited Greece, my father’s homeland, frequently during the 60s, I remember the time as being one when the presence of a US base in Athens was certainly very contentious and how there were constant bomb threats against it. Wow, I said. How was that for you? Pretty tough, he said. In fact he was glad he wasn’t married at the time since when he left for work in the morning, he never felt totally secure about whether he was going to return in one piece in the evening. He was glad he didn’t have a wife to worry about. But overall, he really enjoyed the experience, he told me. Then he thanked me again for my talk, told me once more how much he’d enjoyed it and walked away.
Later I was talking with Rebecca, the very nice person who’d done all the arranging for me to come to Horizon House. We’d been corresponding since the beginning of the year and knew we’d get on when we finally met that evening. She said she’d noticed me talking to this gentleman and that it looked like we were having quite a nice discussion. Indeed we were, I told her. He was a lovely man who’d obviously led a very full and interesting life. Yes, she said. But had I noticed anything? I looked perplexed. He suffers from dementia, she said. That was why she’d been watching our conversation with such interest, why she was so pleased to see us interacting so naturally. Well, as I assured her, I hadn’t noticed a single thing. All I’d thought was how nice it was of him to take the trouble to compliment me on my talk and then to share his memories with me. She said, well, that was surprising to her. But in a good way.
So apparently there was something a little bit miraculous going on when he and I shared those few moments. I still haven’t really been able to get my head round that. Stuff you take for granted: just a normal little conversation, an exchange of experiences and observations, the nothing-specials of a day. Yet in reality this particular conversation was actually something very precious, not something to be taken for granted at all. It made me think how we don’t have a clue what’s really going on for people when we meet them, even indeed when we’re knee-deep in conversation with them. How we need to recognise what a gift every conversation is and how lucky we are in even those simplest of moments, when somebody chooses to approach us and tell us something about their day or life. Just being able to listen to and talk with another human being is anything but nothing-special. It can even be a miracle.