James Barnett lived in a town called Ellerbe, North Carolina. The population was 1,021 at the 2000 census. It is perhaps best known as the one-time home of professional wrestler André the Giant, who operated a nearby ranch/farm in his spare time and retirement. According to the United States Census Bureau, the town has a total area of 1.5 square miles.
In his spare time, James often walked every square inch of this small town. He was born in 1916 in a small cabin on the west side of town, went to the elementary school in mid-town, and, as a child, he worked the tobacco fields that bordered the outskirts of the city. James worked for 30 years as a janitor in a furniture plant in a nearby town. He attended Sidney Grove Baptist Church, one of the 12 churches that graced the small plot of land that he called home.
He was married to his childhood sweetheart, Lucinda Barnett, and they had one child together, Mary Barnett. James never proceeded further in school than the third grade, and until his last day on earth, his signature never amounted to more than a broad and decisive X. He enjoyed sitting on his porch at the end of a long work day, sipping a cold beer, and watching the cars stream by. He enjoyed counting the number of trucks that passed his house. He seldom counted more than a couple dozen vehicles before passing out in his chair. Lucinda would wake him in time for supper, kiss him on the forehead, take his hand, and lead him into the kitchen.
His life was simple, unencumbered, and, for the most part, serene. James Barnett had mastered the art of simplicity and harmony in life. He never cursed, he never got into fights with others, and, for the most part, he lived his life in quiet celebration of the things that he could do for himself and his family. James Barnett was my grandfather, and he was the only father figure that I had in my life. Oddly enough, we never really spent that much time talking. Our relationship consisted primarily of me helping him to chop wood, work the small farm that he kept near the house, and helping him with the banking and business transactions that he needed to complete in town. My father walked away from my siblings and I when we were very young, and my grandfather, my mother’s father, took us in.
My grandfather taught me how to drive, how to shoot a gun, how to shake a man’s hand, how to take care of my family, and how to love the Creator with all my heart. After my grandmother passed in 1985, he lived alone in the house that they had built more than thirty years before. He continued to sit on the porch, count trucks, and fall asleep as the sun set over the Chinaberry trees that he had planted in the front yard. At least now, he didn’t have to hide the beer that he loved to sip on as he rocked in his favorite chair.
My grandmother was no longer there to cook for him or lead him back into the house, but he learned to cook the meals that he liked on his own. When I visited home, I sat with him on the porch, often for hours staring at the highway, saying nothing. I always brought him a six pack of beer from the local store, and he appreciated that I remembered his favorite brand. I made it a point to visit him every time that I went home. He was not much for talking on the phone, and he did not like buses, airplanes, or trains. Since moving to Arizona, I realized that the only way that I would ever see him on any kind of a regular basis would be to visit him in Ellerbe once a year.
As my medical practice in Arizona grew, I purchased a small clinic facility in Tempe Arizona. Directly across the street from the building was a large nursing care facility for which I often provided psychiatric consultations. I suppose the care and love that I received from my grandparents had carved out a special place in my heart for the elderly. On many occasions, I visited my clients not so much as a psychiatrist, but simply because I liked seeing them and staying in touch. I met their families, their pets, their spouses, and their friends. Sometimes, we would just sit and watch television together or listen to music. Most of the time, I only had a few minutes to sit with my clients in the home. I often promised to return and spend more time, but as my practice grew, time became a rare and precious commodity.
My grandfather died in 1995. He passed away in his sleep, quietly, without pain. He had never been sick a day in his life. Ironically, I had very recently lost a wonderful older resident in the nursing facility whom I had come to like very much. She was Flemish by birth, and had been the wife of a wealthy European Ambassador before she retired to Arizona. After her husband died, she moved into the retirement facility and quickly made friends with a number of the residents. The staff called me in to help her with insomnia. Mrs. Van Damme was a well-educated, erudite, and wonderfully bright lady who smiled easily and loved to hug. When I first met her, she smiled at me and said;
“I have never touched a black man before, would you mind if I touched your face?”
I could not refuse such a humble and touching offer. From that moment on, we became friends. As I got to know her, I often thought that she and my grandfather would get along well. Even though he was about as far afield from her life as one could get, their warmth, caring, and ease of life seemed to bond them in my psyche. They died within days of each other. Even though they had never met, their lives had intersected in my heart.
The last time that I sat with both of them, they each gave me the same piece of advice. I will never forget their words. As a matter of fact, their words led me to the theme of this blog:
Remember to empty your cup once in a while.
Both Mrs. Van Damme and my grandfather James Barnett had reminded me to sit with the people whom I love while holding hands. As simple as that advice was, when they passed, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I remembered that my grandfather liked to hold my hand as we sat on the porch and counted the trucks on the freeway. Mrs. Van Damme and I used to sit and hold hands as she listened to classical music on the public radio station. As I mourned the loss of these two precious souls, I contemplated the significance of those quiet, often unassuming moments. In my busy life, I realized that I didn’t sit still very often, and when I did, I seldom took the time to do something as simple as holding another’s hand.
Contemplating the concept even further, I realized that I spent very little time emptying the cup of my life at all. It seemed that I always found time to do the hundred-odd things that always filled my plate. I was a good doctor; I took care of my clients. I raised my children, I was a good husband, and I did all the things in my life that one was expected to do as a dutiful doctor, husband, and father. However, I came to realize as I laid those wonderful souls to rest, that I almost never spent more than a few minutes just enjoying the beauty of the moment. I never just held my wife’s hand without watching TV, or doing a number of other things that we do while spinning through life together. I always found time to do several things at once.
In truth, I never really fully emptied my cup enough to enjoy the simple harmony of the moment.
I often held my daughter’s hand when she felt sick, or hugged my son after a long day. My wife and I held hands while we watched television, and sometimes we would hold hands while we sat in the car. But I realized, even with all of these good, attentive moments of endearment, that I never really let go of the world around me long enough to fully appreciate the beauty of simply being with another person. My cup, as it were, was always full.
I wanted to stay well read. I wanted to stay in shape. I wanted to be well traveled. I wanted to see the best movies, the best plays, and listen to the best music. I wanted to build my practice, meet my financial goals, and be the best father and husband that I could be. In short, I had become adept at keeping the cup of my life full to the brim. I did not ever really stop to think about the fact that, at some point, I was going to lose all of those things. At some point, my life in this world would stop, and I would have to let go of all of those things that had filled my cup. In the same way that my grandfather and Mrs. Van Damme had slipped away, I too would slip away from this world. As a matter of fact, so too would everyone whom I’d ever met.
The process of emptying my cup would, at some point, be done for me, whether I wanted it done or not. Those two wonderful souls had given me a precious gift before leaving this world. The insight that they left me had given way to a sense of peace and harmony that remains with me to this day.
The cup of life has the capacity to fill itself each day with a myriad of tasks, both big and small, that we struggle to complete as best we can before we sleep. The reality is, however, that we can never really get it all done. No matter how hard we try, something remains undone at the end of the day.
Those little undone tasks consume the waking and sleeping moments of our lives and, without realizing it, we often surrender to worry and anxiety the serenity and peace that we truly deserve.
If we choose, we can let go of that cup and fully empty it at any moment that we choose. In a moment, we can choose to contemplate the silence of togetherness, the beauty of sharing life with another. Let me suggest a few methods that you can use to gradually learn to empty your cup:
1. Take twenty minutes a day to sit, close your eyes, and do nothing. You don’t have to count your breaths, say a mantra, or visualize anything. These minutes are yours. Allow your mind to drift for this special space in time. Try to incorporate doing this each day no matter how busy your day becomes.
2. Share your twenty quiet minutes with a friend or loved one. If you like, hold their hands while you share this time. Let your minds drift together. Try not to talk. Remember to smile.
3. Take two hours each week to do something that you absolutely love. Write out a list of things that you like to do. I mean truly, absolutely like to do. Make an exhaustive search inside your psyche for those things that ignite your passion. Then, clear two hours once weekly to indulge yourself in one or more of the items on your list. You will come to find that these times will become some of the most precious and special times of your life.
I flew back home to pay my respects to my grandfather after he passed. I sat alone with him in the funeral home, and reminisced about the times that we had spent together. During those times, it seems that words are never sufficient. It always seems that we wished that we had more moments to spend. As I looked at my grandfather, he seemed to be very much at peace. I knew that those moments that I shared with him would be our last. I had a strong belief in the afterlife; I believe that all of us continue in some form or fashion after leaving this world.
I thought about the peace and security that he had given me as a boy when he took us in. I thought about the strength and courage that I drew from him as I grew. I thought about the days that we sat on the porch and counted trucks. After an hour or so, I made myself get up and say goodbye to James Barnett. Before I left, I slipped a five dollar bill in his coat pocket. No one would ever find it, and if they did, they would not know why it had been placed there. Wherever he was going, I was sure that he would need money for his favorite beer.
The next six pack that my grandfather had would be on me.