How does one move into the late stage of life with our dignity intact? I have learned that this is not a state that one can create entirely independently. Rather, it is a delicate dance between willing, caring, compassionate co-creators of a social contract. I have seen rare, but beautiful examples such as one memorable afternoon in a small San Francisco diner.
I remember watching as a small, elderly woman walked into the little dining room, dignified and graceful, with just a slight tremor in her bird-like hands. Her circa 1950 camel’s hair coat hung from her shoulders as if it had fitted a more robust frame a quarter century ago. The waitress, with a cheerful (and perhaps a tad patronizing) smile, took her coat from her shoulders and offered to hang it on the hook at the end of the red leather booth. However, she declined, asking to hold it beside her. Then, the object of my fascination slid carefully into her seat, gently smoothing her beautifully tailored navy suit – an ancient Chanel perhaps? I heard her order a cup of soup and some coffee and then she turned her attention to studying a small notebook that she brought with her.
So, I did the same, turning my mind back to my own lukewarm coffee and my laptop full of half completed ‘to-do’ lists. I only half noticed when the waitress brought a large basket of rolls and butter to her table.
Then, moments later, a movement caught my eye. Peering as inconspicuously as I could, I watched with my head bowed in mock attention to my own table. I saw her hand, deftly and quickly slip a roll into the pocket of her coat. I was riveted. A few minutes later, it happened again. All the while she nibbled daintily on one roll that sat on her plate, divided into a dozen tiny pieces. When the waitress brought her soup, I noticed that rather than the cup she had ordered, a large bowl arrived, along with a fresh batch of rolls, as the original was almost finished, or rather, disappeared.
Once again the rolls slipped from the basket and found their way to various pockets and cuffs. When the soup was gone, the waitress announced to her guest that the cook had made far too much carrot cake and was wondering if she would like a piece, on the house. (No such offer was made to me, even though I was putting on my best forlorn look.) What arrived was a massive slice of gooey heaven, far too big for 3 or 4 of me, let alone the delicate wee bird across the aisle. She smiled sweetly and said all of the appropriate ‘Oh my’ statements, with her hand fluttering across her chest. She took a few tiny bites and the waitress promptly returned with a box.
As she was leaving, she slowly stood, carefully draped her now laden coat across her arm, left just enough money for one cup of soup and a cup of coffee and made her way across to the door. The waitresses all nodded and waived goodbye and the cook called out from the kitchen to enjoy her day. She walked with her back straight and her head high. She waved, delicately, like the Queen of England from her carriage – a mere swish of her hand.
This was transition with dignity in action. Here I saw a small, close-knit community pulling together in a simple way to allow a woman to salvage her dignity and continue to walk through the world with her head high. She didn’t need to beg or complain because others were empathetic, kind and willing to help in a way that allowed all of the players to contribute. No one asked for recognition of their kindness, no egos got involved in the well-rehearsed dance.
I left the diner that day with a new definition of dignity and a new definition of compassion. This has formed the basis of my philosophy in working with transitioning leaders. Part of my role is to co-create an environment of willing participants – each committed to allowing the aging leader the freedom and grace to walk forward, with their legacy and dignity intact.