I met Jenny at a college football tailgate.
She was in a wheelchair and it was an uncomfortably steamy Saturday. We exchanged pleasantries and I shared my polite response, “It’s nice to see you.” She responded with, “It’s nice to be seen, not viewed.” Her sentence struck me and for a moment I considered by-passing her comment. But curious by her words, I asked her what exactly she meant.
“Viewed as in a coffin,” she stated flatly with a little smile.
Her response left me a bit off-kilter. Learning more of her story, I came to know that she had a near-fatal stroke. After its debilitating effects, she became wheelchair-bound and mostly dependent on her husband for daily care. In my mind, I thought about how hard it would be just to do ordinary life, let alone getting to a packed football game.
Yet she was there. Warm, smiling, and elegantly dressed in her collegiate attire and matching jewelry. In her company, I was enveloped with a sense of deep kindness and gentle-hearted care. Jenny’s tiny frame packed a warmth and a certainty that life is a tender, precious thing.
American poet Emily Dickinson once said, “To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations.”
I find it interesting and ironic that Emily talks about living so vibrantly. As a poet in the mid-1800s, no one even knew about her works until after she was gone. She was known as an eccentric, hardly ever leaving her home, never marrying, and barely greeting any guests. Yet through her rich and vivid poetry, she writes about the gift of truly living. Even though the exterior appeared otherwise, she knew profound depth and beauty in her life.
What I think Emily was getting at and that my friend Jenny embodies so well is that we have a choice about how we live our lives. Jenny had seen the fine line between where she is now and what might have been. She celebrates all the little things like college football, great tailgate food, getting to sleep in when her husband plays golf, and her favorite meal of toasted waffles with crunchy peanut butter.
Would I have the same attitude if I were stuck in a wheelchair? Would I want to go to a busy, chaotic college football tailgate and navigate an overwhelming stadium after a near-fatal stroke? Would I find joy in waffles, sleeping in, and small things others may never see?
I would like to think so.
Truth is, I don’t know how I would handle it. But what I do know is I have a lot to learn and celebrate from knowing people like Jenny. Her one statement alone of “it’s nice to be seen, not viewed” reminded me we have a choice on how to respond to life. Our choices, with gratitude or grumbling, set the tone for our days.
Jenny clearly had spent time thinking about being viewed in a coffin. She faced and is still facing death’s hot breath on the back of her neck. But instead of letting fear limit her life, she still does as many of the things she loves while she can. She chooses living while being among the living. Jenny models for others that even though life may kick you around, you can still live it well.
Emily was right when she said, “to live is so startling.” But I would add, “but only if we choose to truly live.” Every day we are still here, we have the choice to see our lives like the surprising gift it is.
We can choose to live. We can choose to see the lovely things. We, too, can choose to be grateful to be seen, not viewed.