I told him I had ordered a double-stacked burger with extra cheese and half of the sandwich ended up on my lap. His familiar response was a deep guttural laugh. A pleasant feeling comes over me when I hear his laughter. Only a few minutes later my grandfather, whom we always affectionately address as “Papa,” asked me once again what I had for lunch. I repeated the story about the double-stacked burger disaster. Once again, he laughed as if he had heard the story for the first time. The unfortunate reality for him was that it was indeed the first time he had heard the story. My grandfather has dementia and is experiencing significant cognitive decline. If I had been asked during my childhood and adolescent days to describe a place where I felt perfectly content, I would have portrayed a seashore with white soft sand dunes and warm aqua blue waves. However, if I were asked the same question today, I would instantly respond that where I feel perfectly content is inside the four white walls of my Papa’s bedroom. When I am seated next to Papa I am not judged. I am only appreciated for my time, my conversation, and my love.
I have always cherished the time I am able to spend with my Papa. The stories he has accumulated over the course of his incredible life are fascinating. His reflections on his many compelling life experiences were practically history lessons. As someone who loves to learn, I could not devour the stories he shared fast enough. However, with his dementia, the only relationship that we can now share is in the world in which he lives at present. I live in an age of constant commotion and distraction. I have learned from my time with him that one’s prospect of having a joyful future can truly depend on one’s ability to savor the present. “Living in the moment” is no doubt a cliché for some, but for me, it has become a precious life lesson.
Last year, I conducted soccer clinics for disadvantaged youngsters from a local school. Instead of thinking what I was doing was going to somehow change their futures, or perhaps turn them into soccer enthusiasts like me, I allowed myself to experience the thrill of the moment. I focused on the bliss of their laugher and their awe at experiencing the pure joy of bouncing a ball off one’s head. At my interview for the Stanislaus County of Education Leadership Academy, I did not worry whether I had picked out the right suit to wear or if my prior work was sufficient enough to prove myself a viable candidate. Instead, I concentrated on the interviewers. I listened to their words and shared my stories, all the while appreciating my time with them. While painting over graffiti in my city, I did not think about how the gangs would probably just tag the walls again. Rather, I savored the opportunity to spend time with my friends while doing something so productive. As the junior class president facing a hundred mostly blank faces during a class meeting, I focused on the agenda I was there to discuss and not on potential future criticism. Even when experiencing the anxiety that accompanies trying to achieve a crucial field goal during an intense soccer match, staying in the moment became critical. No longer did I allow thoughts of “What if I miss?” “What if the wind picks up?” “What if…?” Instead, I focused on the task at a hand. I kept my eyes back, followed through, and celebrated as the ball sailed through the uprights.
While reflecting on the time I have spent inside my Papa’s four white walls, I have come to appreciate what living in the moment can offer. I realize that living in the present allows me to experience life without the intrusion of worry or distraction. It has made me happier, more exuberant and more empathetic. Living in the moment has not prevented me from looking forward to a promising future or cherishing my past. I have lofty goals and feel an eagerness to learn more, give more, and be more. I treasure every moment I spend with my Papa. As I sit across from him anchored firmly in the here and now, I find myself able to take deep breaths and enjoy the moment. I am left in a perfect state of contentment.