Lessons for the Living
by Maggie Burns
I revisited an important life lesson this past Saturday. The Main Man and I were in Oklahoma City in the Bishop W. Angie Chapel on the campus of Oklahoma City University. We were there for the Commemoration of Life service for Elizabeth Ozan Anderson. Elizabeth was the wife of a colleague, Gene Anderson, whom I have known seemingly forever. He is a great scientist and a good friend. I had met Elizabeth casually at professional meetings throughout the years.
It was only when the Main Man and I traveled with them after a meeting in New Delhi that I really got to know her. We had a wonderful time in India and Nepal, staying at former royal palaces built of marble with grand staircases and beautiful settings. One of them was featured in an early James Bond movie – it was its own island. We played in them like children. One night we used the huge doors of a ballroom to re-enact the opening credits of the old television show, The Loretta Young Show. Loretta would open the door and come twirling through to introduce the show. Elizabeth and I did that a few times and doubled over in laughter – or was it the spicy food we had been enjoying for weeks?
Over the years we had several more fun-filled outings together – in Tennessee, in Napa Valley, in Oklahoma. Always fun.
On Saturday, I learned a few more things about Elizabeth I hadn’t known. After going to nursing school, she became a nurse anesthetist and worked with the eminent heart surgeon, Michael DeBakey. Then, seeing the need, she started a nursing home for aging adults in the 1970’s, before the concept was common.. They raised three children and have four grandchildren who are their delight in life. Along the way, she was active in the Critical Care Registered Nurses Association, the local art society, and with her friends in the bridge club. When they moved from Houston to Oklahoma City, she continued these activities and became a booster for the state of Oklahoma, as shown in the tour she gave us when we visited.
But none of that is the reason I want to tell you about Elizabeth.
It is not her accomplishments that made her exceptional.
It is her relationships with other people.
Elizabeth exemplified unconditional acceptance of others. She appreciated what each person is, for themselves, not for what they did, but for who they were and what they tried to do and wanted to be. I can tell you myself, it was like being with your grandmother who thinks you are the most wonderful human being ever invented and wants to know what you think and what you are doing and applauds it. But Elizabeth was no pushover. If she didn’t like what she heard or what you were doing, you would hear it. One of our mutual friends was behaving very badly for his age after his divorce and Elizabeth had no qualms about telling him, “Grow up! You’re too old for that!”
Speaker after speaker at Elizabeth’s service said the same thing in many different words and in many different contexts – “She loved me and she told me what she thought.”
The lesson I learned yet again is that my relationships with my fellow human beings are the only things that matter. As the Vipassana guru Jack Kornfield says (and I paraphrase), “When you come to the end of your life, the only important question to ask yourself is, ‘Did I love well?’” It seems like a simple question, but it is the most central question of life. How you answer it determines how you live and think on a daily basis, on a minute to minute basis.
As current neuroscience studies are showing, our thoughts control our physiology, as well as the other way around. You cannot exhibit road rage one minute and truly love your significant other in the next second.
I hope this lesson sticks with me and I put it into practice more earnestly yet again.
Moreover, I hope at my funeral someone will say as Elizabeth’s grandson, Ian, said about her, “My grandma was… my grandma was… well, my grandma was crazy!” That may be the highest tribute from a twelve-year old.
About Maggie Burns
Maggie is a retired UC Davis professor living in Winters with her husband, retired UC Davis professor Roy Bellhorn. Maggie is an occasional columnist for the Winters Express, a freelance writer and is the president of the Yolo Community Foundation.