I work a lot with people who are dying, or their family members. Every so often, I go to a funeral. This is always because I have developed some kind of special connection with the person who has died. I haven't made a habit of it; I find that however positive, realistic or even celebratory the ritual is, I am always left with the heavy reality of loss and death. And actually, I don't want to dilute that important inner reaction, by sitting through too many such occasions. I want to keep a healthy respect for deaths, and remain open to their impacts.
In the Autumn of last year, I met a man in his 80's. he was rather isolated socially and kept himself to himself. But he was clearly needing some support, both physical and psychological. I was asked to spend some time with him, not in a formal capacity, but simply to help build some trust and communication between him and the organization. So I went over and had a chat.
"Tony" quickly started talking about his background and his nostalgia for 'home' (Greece). I commented that many men of his age 'back home' would be sitting outside a cafe in the sunshine, smoking and drinking black tea, playing chequers or cards or........
"Backgammon! I would be playing Backgammon. Oh, yes." His face came alive. "Do you play?"
No, I didn't, sadly. I had never learned. "I will teach you! Will you be here next week? I will bring my board. I will show you how."
And so our relationship cemented. Week by week, he would bring his backgammon board. It came in a tatty supermarket bag, but when opened it revealed a beautiful sultry mix of dark brown wood inlays. It looked to me like it was itself Greek. Small intricate geometric patterns sat around and inside the traditional Backgammon board, with its triangular spikes pointing upwards.
The basics explained, Tony set about teaching me. Advice came thick and - oh my, so very fast. His play was accomplished, slick, and natural. He played at least 2 moves in advance. I, on the other hand, needed so so much time to think, and think, and finally decide what piece to move, and then move it and -
"Noooooo! Why are you putting it there? I will knock you!" The voice was deep and gravelly and filled with life, though it came from a frail and fragile body. So frequent were his interventions, it seemed to me he was actually playing two games - his and mine - and enjoying the educational commentary.
"I think this time, we are having a game of running"...... "I see your stone here, but I am taking a chance anyway." ...... "You throw a three or a six, I will get you - oh yes, you will be sorry."
I tried hard to keep up and absorb the teachings.
At first I had felt a little worried about this use of my time. What would my colleagues think? But after a few weeks, as this teaching continued, I noticed the therapeutic value in what we were doing. This man - frail, weak, and debilitated by disease, was adjusting to a shrinking life. When we played backgammon, he had opportunities to be cunning. Deceptive. Aggressive. Frustrated. Angry, even. Kind. Generous. Sporting. Fair. Funny. "Double six, baby!"
He reminisced. In between games, he would tell me stories of his life; how he & his wife had met over 60 years ago. How he had built up a business. How he had been widely known in his part of London.
And he was teaching me, a younger man, who knew nothing. What a glorious opportunity for him to feel, and share, the wisdom of his age. And for me to learn from him. Something important passes between old and young when this occurs; I remember reading something about this in the men's literature (Alan Chinen, perhaps, or maybe Moore & Gilette). The older man gains from his role as initiator, and the younger man grows by initiation into a new version of manhood.
It also brought to mind the life-stages suggested by Erik Erikson; particularly "Generativity vs Stagnation", and "Integrity vs Despair". One reading of the term "Generativity" suggests a kind of passing-on of knowledge, values, culture, in a way which enriches the lives of younger people, but also wards off the feelings of stagnation and lack of purpose that are possible in older life. Generativity, then, is about contributing to a community - large or small- that will continue after one's death.
Eventually, in the New Year, there came a day when something shifted. After looking around the board, and again at my dice (several times), I realised there was a move I should make; one he'd been reiterating to me for a long time. Silently I picked up the piece and placed it in a good, solid, strategic position.
"Hmmmmm," came the approval. "You are learning."
Inside, I positively glowed. How wonderful.
And later, when a stranger came to look on in puzzlement at our game, I was given an even greater honour. He looked up at the spectator and said: "I'm so glad I met Ian."
Thence our relationship rebalanced. I grew, and we became less unequal (although to be fair, the change wasn't huge. He had been playing for 76 years, and I only a few weeks!)
I fear that, as the ageing population grows, there is an increasing potential for them to be unconsciously resented as a burden on the state and society as a whole. Hints of this can be seen already in the growing UK debate about the future of old-age care, and how it's paid for. How sad, then, that this might get in the way of our learning from them, respecting them, and appreciating their role in teaching us the values - and value - of life.
As long as I live, whenever I play Backgammon, I will hear that voice. And I hope I grow old enough to teach the game to another, in such a meaningful way.
Thank you, Tony. And blessings.