“Connect with others first, then worry about the details.”
In Hawaiian, kapuna means elder. But a kupuna wasn’t just an aged person; Kapuna were respected as keepers of wisdom and knowledge. In the West, we seem to have lost touch with our wise elders. For most of my life, my interactions with older people were perfunctory.
Luckily, I had the honor of doing hospice care for a 94 year old German American kapuna. Gertrude “Trude” Bock was born on April 22, 1921 in Freiberg, Germany and passed away on May 28th, 2015 in Palo Alto, California. I only knew Trude for seven months, but she treated me like a family member.
Looking back, I now realize that although I was supposed to be taking care of Trude, she was actually showering me with wisdom and guidance. Sometimes she told me things, but most of the time she taught by example. Here are five lessons I learned from my love affair with a 94 year old kapuna.
1) Stay True to Your Heart
Trude lived in Germany when Adolf Hitler was ascending to power. Even as a young child, she could sense that this charismatic leader was up to no good. In the school she attended, students were required to “Heil Hitler,” but Trude refused to do so, even though the penalties for this disobedience were dire. Throughout her life, Trude had the courage to follow her heart regardless of the consequences.
She opened her home in Palo Alto to children from Mexico who had severe health problems. This caused tension with her husband, but Trude continued to care for these indigent children. One day a truck load of Mexican children rolled up, and a two-year old burn victim named Angelica walked into the house and promptly pooed on the floor. Mr. Bock packed his bags and left, but Ms. Bock stayed committed to the children.
During a late night talk, Trude told me that “it is better to be aligned with your heart than with society.”
2) Embrace Life As It Is
As a five year old child, Ms. Bock survived polio, but the disease crippled her hands and her left side. By the time I met her 89 years later, she was nearly bedridden. During her last months of life, she had a huge bedsore on her backside that wouldn’t heal. Trude never complained about these ailments. She accepted them as a part of life and looked for ways to express gratitude.
One morning, we were repositioning Gertrude on her side.
“Does that feel ok,” I asked.
“No, but it will do,” she answered with a smile.
After I put her blankets back on, she said, “Thank you for trying to make me more comfortable.”
Trude rarely complained, but she always thanked anyone who visited or cared for her. I see this gratitude as embracing life rather than complaining about what life wasn’t.
3) Take Care of Your Ears
I’ve always thought that the most important sense to maintain is sight, but Trude taught me otherwise. Her eyesight was severely limited. Towards the end of her life, she didn’t even open her eyes for most of the day. Her hearing, on the other hand, was perfect.
Caretakers and/or family members would often be in the next room talking, and Trude would reply to the topic of conversation. I read to her frequently, and she would pick up on very subtle details of some complicated spiritual texts.
Relationships are built on communication. If you can’t hear someone, it is very difficult to communicate with them. If you can’t see someone, you can still have a very deep talk with them. All the way up until her last days, Trude had intimate relationships with everyone around her because she was able to communicate with them.
Lucy, one of Gertrude’s granddaughters, visited her the week before her passing. Lucy held her grandmother’s hand and told her how much she loved her and how she will miss her. Trude didn’t open her eyes or reply, but a tear streamed down her cheek. She had heard and understood the words of her grandchild.
4) Love, Care and Be of Service to Others
I once asked Trude what made her happy when she thought about her life. Without hesitating, she said how she loved, nurtured, and cared for her children. I think Trude was specifically referring to her five biological children, but I couldn’t help thinking about all the children whose lives she touched.
Gertrude Bock opened her house in Palo Alto to over 300 children from Mexico who suffered from medical problems that couldn’t be treated in their villages. She housed, fed, nurtured, educated, and chauffeured these children for decades.
Fully-grown Angelica spoke at the funeral. “I want to thank Mimi [an affectionate name for Ms. Bock] for treating me like one of her children. I want to thank her children for sharing their mother with me,” she said with tears streaming down her face.
Although I only knew Ms. Bock for half a year, she treated me like a son. Her smiles, humor, and wisdom colored every interaction. She deeply listened to whatever I wanted to share with her. It felt like she was giving me something even when she couldn’t get out of bed, open her eyes, or move her arms. After decades of serving others, she radiated a selfless love that was palpable. I can’t think of a better quality to cultivate in life.
I once told Trude that I hoped that when I got to be her age as many people would come to visit me as she had flocking to see her. “It’s a sign of a life well-lived when so many different people come to visit you when you are sick,” I said as if I knew what a good life entailed.
“Don’t worry, Kozo. I’ll be up there [she pointed at the ceiling], so I will make sure others visit you. If they don’t visit, then I will send angels to comfort you,” she said softly like she was telling a secret. Just like Trude, selflessly serving even in heaven.
5) Don’t Take Anything for Granted
Trude taught me a final lesson on the day of her passing. The night before, I told the head caregiver that Trude might live for another few years. “It is possible. She seems to be bouncing back,” she responded.
At 5 A.M., I woke up to turn her. She quickly went back to sleep, so I went out in the living room to do some research. At about 6 A.M. I thought about sitting with Trude for an hour before I had to get ready to go to my office job, but I decided to continue watching YouTube.
An hour after I left on that morning, I got the call. Although I had gotten to kiss her and say goodbye, I missed my chance to be in her presence right before her passing because I assumed that she would be around when I returned later in the evening. I actually expected her to stay alive for at least a few weeks if not months.
Never take anything or anyone for granted. You never know what will happen or when it will happen. I’ve told this to myself before, but this time the permanence of missed opportunities shot right into my heart. Research, work, YouTube, everything can wait. Connect with others first, then worry about the details.
Thank you for all the gifts you have bestowed upon me, Trude. I love you. Rest in Peace.
Photo courtesy of the Bock family