This week, I learned that Nicholas Koutroumanis, an old friend of my family, died recently. I thought I would share this piece I wrote about him 8 years ago.
Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you.…All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding, find out what you already know, and you’ll see the way to fly.
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We call him Pappous, or Nicholas.
He and my mother became fast friends five years ago while neighbors at the their senior-living apartment complex. They went for walks, grocery shopped, and sat in doctors’ waiting rooms together. They listened to each other’s stories — her two daughters, growing up in Pennsylvania, the divorce; his life in Greece, the war injuries, his son.
He is old enough to be her father, really, but they seem to find comfort in such differences. Her patience with him seems endless, and his with her. He speaks broken English and Greek, she nods her head; she talks forever, and he nods his. He picks a piece of lint off her sweater and she waves him away; she kisses his cheek and he waves back.
The first Easter he spent with my family, he sang hymns in Greek — his voice so pure and beautiful you would cry at the sound.
Nicholas has been a frequent companion with my mother for holidays and birthdays and family celebrations over the years. He always brings pears, or grocery store pies, and tells stories about wild turkeys, God…and spirits. On my nephew’s first birthday this summer, he sat on a folding chair in the shade wearing a Hawaiian lei watching his little “Cowboy” enjoy the festivities.
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And then you will be ready to begin the most difficult, the most powerful, the most fun of all. You will be ready to begin to fly up and know the meaning of kindness and of love.
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My friend MaryAnne and I saw Nicholas today. He has a nice room at Yale, overlooking the hospital’s parking garage. Outside of a little high-blood pressure, he seems no worse for the wear of his 88-years, except…
“You’ll have to forgive me” he says for the fifth time in 20 minutes, “This is my first time getting old.”
For six weeks, Nicholas has been in this holding pattern — somewhere between his old life and his next one at a yet-to-be-determined nursing home. But he makes do. There are photos of his families taped to the window — his son and granddaughter, my sister and her son. A Greek newspaper is half-read and folded across the arm of a chair next to his favorite hat and familiar tan jacket. He makes easy, flirty conversation with the nurse who arrives to take his blood pressure. He tells old jokes and hugs us each with full and firm resolve.
A dry-erase board in front of the bed reminds him that TODAY is Friday, NOVEMBER 23. It includes the names of his doctor, the nurse. The blue magic marker notes that he is INDEPENDENT, but he is as much aware of the confines of this new life as we are.
“What are you going to do?” he shrugs his shoulders. “This is the day you have.”
In one moment, he is tangled in loops of conversation — “So, how are you?” he asks four, five, six times. And the next, he is as lucid as the day he fixed me up on a blind date, and sat as chaperone over tea and pear slices.
As we drink coffee from paper cups in the hospital cafeteria, he moves effortlessly from 40 years passed to last week to 10 years ago. My mother is his wife is his daughter is my sister is me. The details are off, the timeline is skewed, but the meaning of what he wants to share is clear.
“I woke up at 4 a.m.,” he says, “because there was a bright light. When I opened my eyes, I saw Stella. My wife. She was so bright. I told her how much I miss her.”
Stella passed away three years ago.
He is trying not to cry.
“I told her ‘I miss you Stella, come here’ but she would not come. I asked if she is in heaven and she said no. No.”
It is not heaven, he tells us, just a different side of the atmosphere.
“Here,” he says, holding his heart, “is heavy because we are here,” he points downward. “But there, on the other side of the atmosphere, everything is light.”
– – – – –
Your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than your thought itself.
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In and out of the conversation, I am reminded of the pages in Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which I read for the first time earlier in the day.
Nicholas, my elder and my Pappous, teaching me as wise Chiang taught Jonathan.
The trick… was for Jonathan to stop seeing himself as trapped inside a limited body.…The trick was to know that his true nature lived, as perfect as an unwritten number, everywhere at once across space and time.
Nicholas seems to move that way now — effortlessly across space and time. If he is bothered by his current situation he doesn’t let it show too much, and then forgets soon after. Besides, what are you going to do? This is the day you have.