This phrase follows me everywhere lately. You know how you notice the things that bug you, even if they aren’t really happening more frequently? For some reason I find these few words strung together particularly irritating, I’m not really sure why. Perhaps it is because the phrase is thrown into sentences haphazardly without much regard for whether the subject being spoken about is truly immutable. I like to think that we are in control of most things in our lives, that we can change or fix what we don’t like about ourselves, or about our situation. Clearly, that isn’t always true – I know that. I recognize my discomfort for the unchangeable. Today in Genetics class, when I saw the title of the video clip we were about to watch, “It is what it is” I thought it was ironic and of course, simultaneously appropriate for any of many genetic conditions. But I didn’t expect the movie to give new meaning for me for the filler-phrase “it is what it is.”
The movie was about Frontal Temporal Dementia, and chronicled the lives of numerous families and younger couples that were devastated by the disease’s inevitable progression and irreversible decline. It was a touching film and many in the room were teary by the end. But the tears making salty trails down my cheeks were more than just empathy for others, but sadness for my own connection to this unforgiving disease. I cried for myself, my family, and particularly for my mother who is also a daughter (something that I often fail to remember).
The following is a reflection that I wrote about my Safta about a year ago, but wish to recall now, as my memories of my sweet grandmother prior to being labeled with “dementia” fade further and further away. I am terrified that I will grasp gracelessly at these old memories as time marches on, struggling to remember the full history of my amazing Safta. I wish I had started writing about her sooner, but at least I have my family to remember with. Surely, together, we can reconstruct and preserve safely in our own intact memories, the woman that we all collectively adore.
Wisdom is something that I strive to attain, one day. To date, my only wisdom is in knowing that I am not yet wise. My grandmother, Safta, is the wisest person I know. To me, she is wise because she values the small things in life. She sees beauty everywhere: in the hummingbird that patronizes her dahlias, in the dahlias themselves, the patina of fall leaves plastered to the asphalt, and the clear clean sky after a hard rain. And she tells me how beautiful I am every time she sees me (beauty is clearly in the eye of the beholder). Even as her clinically diagnosed dementia worsens, her appreciation for worldly wonders increases day by day. I realize that I move too fast when I take the time to slow down with my Safta. Why do I move so fast? Perhaps because I am not yet as wise as she is.
Safta demonstrates wisdom by embracing the simple joys of life.
A definition of wisdom, written by Paul Bates, is: “Expertise in the fundamental pragmatics of life, permitting exceptional insight and judgment involving complex and uncertain matters of the human condition.” My Safta has distilled life down to the fundamentals, in my perspective. She knows when something is worth her time and concern, and when she would be wasting her breath. She is happiest around those she loves, and she loves all human beings. Safta makes friends with the grocery store bagger at Albertson’s and asks for his phone number (which I found out when I was transcribing her hand-written address book into a more easily-read computer format). She does not discriminate: although my Saba (grandfather) is a world-renowned gastroenterologist, she gives the bagger at Albertson’s the same respect and attention that she give my grandfather’s well-respected colleagues. She prefers to shop at thrift stores. Why buy something new when there is so much life left in something old? (Although, when she purchased me used underwear on one occasion, I briefly questioned this value.) Even as it is distressing for me to watch my grandmother struggle with severe memory loss because I remember her so clearly as a quick-witted and sassy Safta, I forget all that the moment she takes me in her arms to dance gracefully to Pete Seger (her “other husband,” she says). I just wrap my capable arms around her frail yet sturdy shoulders and we sway. She is my Safta, and she has shared her wisdom with me. Why dwell on the things I cannot change? We dance instead.
I guess the biggest thing that I gathered from the movie clip on dementia is that there are some things we can’t change. I can fight this every step of the way, or I can accept it more gracefully remembering that:
It is what it is. But it isn’t what it should be.