“One’s life flashes before one’s eyes,” that’s what they say. But for some the pictures must surely take longer than another. I know certain quite agéd individuals whose lives have been born, bred, raised, and bedded with all of their stages of maturation in close proximity, as if the caterpillar and the pupae and the butterfly never left the atrium. The richness of such a life is not at issue; the variegation is. M’Lady Nancy Sinclair’s life by juxtaposition intertwines with that of her titled father, Sir Arthur Douglas Street, and her impressively accomplished brothers. They are Douglas (actually the son of Auguste Rodin, that most thoughtful of sculptors); Pat (awarded the M.C. and a host of accolades); and Denys (actually Nancy’s twin, and the one caught and shot in The Great Escape). Their stellar lives complement her own achievements as a nurse in the war, and then as wife and mother to her five children, all growing up under the demands of having immigrated to Australia. Her husband (the other Denys) was with her twin brother in that awful concentration camp, Stalag Luft 111. And Nancy saw her husband eventually die with cancer, as did the next man with whom she fell in love, Perry, and then, meeting again at octogenarian ages for the first time after having met way back at war on a troop ship, came Boy. He died after but five years. So very many deaths, and so very much life!
In the dining room we have the twelve-person table cluttered, and ten stations of chairs piled with pertinent documents and photos being sorted for the Memoire: tagged seats that house the contents of the lives still surrounding her, all dead, except for two daughters. ‘M’Lady Nancy’s Memoires’ the master-script on the computer screen reads. And the missive is well on its way.
There is a rhythm to life that most of us prefer. Meals are preferred at regular hours. Bedtime. Wake up time. Work time. And take a break time. And our reaction to things is sometimes not so much a measure of response as it is an evoked emotion. I catch myself surprised as I wept today over the actual letter sent from the prison camp by Nancy’s beloved brother, back in 1943. That a real life wrote that, that he was truly there, and that his fate was so undeniably about to unfold into being actually shot to death has the effect of wrenching one entirely away from the self. It is indeed a catharsis. Why else do we pay to go the movies? Why else suspend our disbelief as the actor who has played all sorts of other roles convinces us that he is now yet another guy, with yet another name, living yet another lifetime? We enjoy the hardship and adventure and stress and quandary of an ‘other,’ just so long as it does not happen to us!
Equanimity is a thing of grace. To witness M’Lady (at almost 91) clearly affected by the unveiling of the past is to watch pain relived. Yet to see her swim in the stream of its passage with her eyes also on the present, her gratitude for life, and her courage and fortitude and dignity and twinkles of humor is a remarkable lesson on how to live. To respond to it, not just to react. To make choices, not just to acquiesce. M’Lady makes our meals, did the laundry (chastised me gently enough for not checking for the tissue that had her having to brush overlong at the wash load) serves up and then washes the dishes too. Yes, I do what I can to help, but mostly I am in my wheelchair at her machine and scanner, neck-brace holding my head up as I type, going over the multiple edits she still finds time to do toward adjusting my transcription of her original tapes. Life may be flashing before her eyes, but it is answering her terms. What a paragon of life being lived just for itself!