As the popular legend goes, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de LeÃ³n discovered mainland Florida in 1513 in search of what natives had told him was the Fountain of Youth. The historical accuracy of this famous story is now questioned, but both the Old and New World had tales of waters making people ageless and immune to death years before de Leon’s voyage to Florida.
Nearly 500 years later and mankind is still searching for the premise behind the Fountain of Youth. Infomercials invade our living rooms through the television screens and proclaim that the secret to aging has been found in the form of mysterious creams applied to the face twice daily. Dr. Sherwin Nuland, professor of surgery at Yale Medical School and author of The Art of Aging suggests that people frown upon the natural process of aging because it opens their eyes to the definite limits of life and so begins everyone’s quest to find the exuberance and refreshing feeling of youth – a quest that is doomed to end in certain disappointment.
But the aging process of all of us is as certain as the sun shining in the sky. All of us might as well look to the future with delight and a sense of happiness that tomorrow is going to be better than today. A healthy dose of optimism is what has guided the history of the United States and, I would argue, has made us the great beacon of freedom in the world that our country is today. On an individual level, however, optimism for the future is tempered by the fear of death and the somber realization that one day we will not be here. Amidst modern medical technologies and the greatest average life expectancy in the world to date, death still dwells all around us and Fountain of Youth remains forever illusive. And so the quest becomes not a search for the Fountain of Youth, but a search for conquering the fear of death.
The fear of the unknown characterizes most fear in our daily lives. The fear of going off to college, starting a new job, changing majors, and trying the mysterious meat dish th the dining hall. Yet the supreme unknown we all will face is death. None of us know when our time is up. So what is the secret to facing it? I think I found the secret in a hospital bed at Lakewood Hospital two weeks ago.
My 92-year-old grandmother had complicated surgery and was still hooked up to tubes and an IV when I came home Easter Weekend to visit her in the hospital. My family had prepared for me an image of my grandmother that I was not used to. The mental image of my grandmother, forever carved in my mind, is an incredibly strong woman who graduated from college at a time when women were destined for domestic life. But when I entered the hospital room, I was greeted with the face I was accustomed to. My grandmother was perked up in a chair, eating Jell-O and talking about her hospital roommate who always whispers.
My grandmother’s first comment to me was not about the immense pain she was experiencing in her old age or about the state of her health. My 92-year-old grandmother wanted to know how I did on my tests that I have taken so far this semester. It was amazing to me that a women who has survived through the Great Depression, World War II, the turbulent 1960s and death of family and friends would be concerned with my test grades – especially after her complicated surgery.
As I left the hospital that evening, it suddenly occurred to me that I had discovered the Fountain of Youth that de LeÃ³n supposedly traveled to St. Augustine, Fla. to find. There is no magic water or secret cream that can give us agelessness, it is all in for the concern of others. What keeps my grandmother going is a deep sincere concern for others – her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, friends and anyone else she has met in her lifetime – including a hospital who days before was a perfect stranger.
When I ventured back to the hospital to visit with her once more before I left home for school, she was telling me about her nurse and how many daughters she has – including one who was in gynamnasitics. Certainly my grandmother had a rough road to recovery ahead of her, but her desire to live is wrapped up not in herself but in the desire to meet and care about those around her.
This lesson may seem enough but for many it is nearly impossible to practice. How many of us would truly strike up normal conversation with a hospital nurse at age 92 just days after surgery? All of us are still afraid of death but in the case of my grandmother, she can take comfort in the fact that her fear is tempered by a concern of others that I have never seen in anyone else I have met.
With so much evil around us in the world, like the terrible tragedy that took place at Virginia Tech, it is too easy to forget the simple generosity and benevolence that we are surrounded by. Fortunately, the evil witnessed at Virginia Tech is outweighed by people such as my grandmother who never seem to age because of selfless concern for others.