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first person

This week, First Person shares the stories of some seriously awesome seniors.

Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

My father had a stroke shortly after his 90th birthday. There were many dark days when we wondered if he would ever recover. However, the amazing man that he was … he worked tirelessly to retrain his brain. He listened to music, practised sketching and did his exercises diligently. One of his medical team recommended he try mindfulness to help his recovery.

My dad knew this was one of my areas of specialty. I run meditation classes that teach people how to sit in stillness and watch their thoughts. He seemed perplexed by this. My father was a thinker, a businessman and a creative genius. His mind was always active. You could see it in his eyes. He was rarely fully present, often lost in his creative world of mergers and inventions.

My perspective of time (and its passing) is changing

“Why in the world would anyone want to just sit and watch their thoughts?” he asked me. I told him that our thoughts affect our body when we obsess and worry. Unknowingly, we can be perpetuating high blood pressure, acid stomach, teeth grinding, headaches, poor sleep, overeating, anxiety, depression … the list goes on. This seemed to make a little more sense to him. Practising mindfulness in relationships can also increase connection and foster joy, I added. I could see the wheels spinning.

When I told him my classes cost up to $500 for an eight-week program, he almost fell off the bed.

He had a slew of questions about the money (Has anyone demanded their money back? Do you offer discounts? Can their benefits pay for this?”). I could see that I’d given a far too limited description. It’s so much more than just sitting in meditation. Everyday mindfulness helps us be conscious enough to respond rather than react to our thoughts and emotions. We become capable of insight in the moment and have a better connection with loved ones.

I decided he would better understand what I teach by showing him, not telling him. Dad seemed excited to experience this elusive, expensive mindfulness.

“Let’s try some mindful listening,” I said. “We do this practice in almost every session. I’m going to set a timer for three minutes and we will take turns talking and listening.” He agreed.

Just before I started the timer he said, “Wait, wait, so I’m not allowed to say anything?”

“That’s correct, Dad, just listen for three minutes and then it’s your turn.”

“Okay, so you want me to button my lip.”

“Well, sort of, except can you try to just let your thoughts pass and be fully present with what I’m saying?”

He looked perplexed again. He said that as an engineer, he’d been paid for his thoughts his whole life: “It’s how I measure my value to the world.”

This is something I had never considered. It had always been hard to connect with him. I asked him to try the activity again. I told him I loved his ideas, but what I really craved was to feel seen and heard by him. This seemed to recommit him, and he sat up straight as my finger pushed the timer.

“So, I run this program called MBSR. It stands for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction …” As I spoke, my dad picked up a pen and started writing something down.

I paused the timer. “Dad, what are you doing?”

“I’m writing down what MBSR stands for so I don’t forget.”

“It’s okay if you forget, Dad. It’s not about remembering what I say, it’s simply about listening. It doesn’t feel like you’re fully listening when you are looking down at your paper.”

He finally seemed to understand his job: Simply listen. I looked down to restart the timer and when I looked up I saw my dad’s beautiful green eyes, soft, with no agendas, just fully present with me. I immediately burst into tears. I don’t think I had ever felt this type of presence from my father. Tears began streaming down his face as well.

“This means so much to me, Dad, I feel it in my heart.”

“I feel it, too,” he said. “This is worth every penny you could ever charge.”

We continued on for almost an hour – taking turns, three minutes each, sharing whatever came to mind, knowing it would be lovingly received with full attention. It’s one of my favourite memories with my father. He made a pact to practise this with everyone. Not the formal three-minute activity, just practising daily mindfulness, truly listening to others. He admitted he had 90 years under his belt the old way. That’s what I loved about my dad: He was always excited to learn new things.

I visited often for the next few months as he returned home from the hospital. He got stronger physically and I saw a shift mentally. Our conversations were different. It wasn’t perfect, but we covered topics that were deeper and more meaningful. He moved slower and with more appreciation. Three months later, he died suddenly of a heart attack, but I will forever be grateful for the gift of mindfulness. It gave us the opportunity to connect in a way that I had craved my entire life.

During one of my last visits, my dad asked if he could walk me to my car and held my hand. I asked him if he wanted to talk about something. No, he just wanted a few moments together. “Time is precious,” he said.

Heidi Smith lives in Guelph, Ont.

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