by Jack McLean
Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1997)
I sat across from the 100-year-old English woman. She was a pale and frail lady in her hundred and first year. Not looking a day over eighty-five, this centenarian was nonetheless still functionally mobile. She moved with a certain determination. Although not completely deaf, she declared without embarrassment that she was hard of hearing. You sensed that she was lip-reading at times by the way she followed the movements of your mouth with her eyes. But she still found delight in conversation and despite her long years, she was clearly of sound mind.
I read to her Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” written to eulogize the 673 British soldiers who had charged into the North Valley to take ground above Balaclava in the Crimean War on October 25, 1854. (Almost three quarters of the brigade was killed, wounded and/or went missing in that action).
As I thumbed to the right page in my poetry volume and prepared to read, she said delightedly that her father used to read this very poem when she was a girl in England, a poem that no doubt had stirred the heart of many a brave British lad and led him on to perform daring military exploits for the Empire. No doubt this one poem alone had fuelled the fires of British patriotism for generations.
I gestured as I read, sounding well the alliterations and emphasizing the movements of that concise masterpiece of suspense and heroism captured in verse: “Cannon to right of them/Cannon to left of them/Cannon behind them/Volleyed and thundered/Stormed at with shot and shell/While horse and hero fell … Theirs not to make reply/Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die … When can their glory fade?/O the wild charge they made!”.
When I had finished reading, I laid my book aside and questioned her about her life philosophy — did she have one? And that ever-fascinating, perennial topic: the meaning of love. “Toujours l’amour.” The small, dark eyes peered at me in a searching, almost accusatory way, small, dark eyes that made you think of smouldering black coals that brought the thin face to life when she spoke.
“Sex has little to do with love,” she asserted. “Fall in love with a flower or a sunset.” Then this strange statement fell from her lips. “Fall in love with a frog.” I knew the old myth of course, but responding to my query, she went on to explain her enigmatic remark. It came in the form of a story.
“Years ago,” she said, “I used to walk by a pond evenings. There was a frog in that pond and he used to sing to me as I passed by. One night, I stopped to listen. I felt certain he was trying to tell me something, but I didn’t know what it was. Later on, the frog ceased singing. I asked my friend why we had heard nothing more from the little prince of the pond.” “Oh,” she said, “Didn’t you know? That frog was eaten by a fish.”
My frail friend continued her story. “I know now that frog was speaking to me, trying to tell me something on that night. He was saying, ‘Save me. Save me. I am going to die!’ If only I had listened. I might have saved him.”
I did not so readily dismiss this unusual tale as the emotional imaginings or maudlin regrets of an old lady wistful about years gone by or just another variation on the theme of carpe diem. I found a much deeper meaning in her story. “So fall in love with a frog,” she repeated. Indeed. The nonsensical sometimes makes great sense. I thought of Sufi mystic-poet Rumi’s provocative statement: “When all of life becomes the Friend, lovers disappear.” I spoke to her briefly of Rumi and shared the aphorism with her. She looked puzzled and I did not pursue the point.
“What else?” I asked. Then I heard the teacher’s voice rising up in her, gently but self-assured. Had she detected something in me that needed to be addressed? “What I have learned in all my long life, ” she said, “is to let things go. Don’t be troubled if things don’t work out. Just let them go. Don’t fret about things. Don’t argue. Don’t make issues and go on holy crusades. Keep the peace but keep especially your inner peace. Compose your differences with those closest to you. I think that’s been the secret to my longevity.”
I sat quietly with her listening and reflecting, feeling both pacified and instructed. Somehow, the two of us had mysteriously bridged a gap created by the passing of a half century. It was to be one of the last conversations with my English friend. She passed on to the Great Beyond a few months later, but her pointed moral reflections continue to inspire and challenge me on my life journey.