Recently it occurred to me that I usually hear the elders I visit called only by their first names. That got me to wondering whether these good people ever heard the sweet and loving names that they remember from their earlier years. Terms of endearment that their parents, lovers, partners, friends or children used to address them. The private names that carry relationships into close, enduring connections—these can feel like gifts of God, strong evidence that they are loved beyond words. Are my elderly friends still hearing these things?
Think about the special names used only by those especially close to you. “Dad” or “mom” come to mind as normal examples. Your nicknames or honorifics might also carry a sense of intimacy. (My brothers and I used to call our father “Game Hog” when he was way too successful at catching trout and “The Old Buzzard” when he let us see his silly side!) How about the endearments only you and your spouse call(ed) each other? (Love, Darlin’, Dolly and Honey are part of our family’s lore.) Or the special names given to children? (Pumpkin, SnickleFritz and Bud are familiar to me.) Best friends, siblings, dear ones who you correspond with or talk to regularly, colleagues you cherish—what names do you call each other? (I used to greet some of my most-admired bosses with “Your Grace” as a somewhat silly sign of my actual respect.)
What wonderful things happen inside of you when endearing names appear on a screen like this, or in your hearing? When you see a knowing look in someone’s eye, perhaps joined to a moment of intimate conversation? Terms of endearment tell you immediately how well you’re known, how readily you’re forgiven, how deeply you’re admired. I can still hear my sainted father’s and mother’s voices when they would address me as “Robbie!” Even when they were very old, that nickname always recalled our lifetime of cherished experiences. It always assured me that I was loved by them.
Here’s the rub for those of us whose dear ones are growing fewer in number, though: Who’s going to think of or talk to us using terms of endearment? Is there anything we can do to replace former loving words with newer ones? Can we still find emotionally laden titles or tags that we use only with specific people? Or perhaps most difficult of all: What happens inside us when all those terms are no longer used, when the sacredness of intimacy is perhaps harder to find or name?
I’m not sure there’s an actual problem here—perhaps I’m just reflecting on an inevitable fact about growing older. Still, it seems a shame that this wonderful part of our lives—being known in unique terms that rest inside of unique relationships—is something that we might lose. That we might be unable to find something else, too—the closeness that comes with these special names.
While I’m figuring out what to do with this collection of thoughts, I’m probably going to continue to address my assisted living visitees by their given first names, looking them in the eye and smiling genuinely—so that they know how special they are to me.
And please don’t call me “Robbie”. That one’s already taken.
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