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We Cannot Save Each Other, Let’s Marvel Instead

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I ache when I think of American chestnut trees. I wish I could save them.

The overwhelming loss. (I’m a particular fan of chestnuts.) These magnificent beasts were the ballast of the Eastern U.S. culture and economy. Between 1904 and 1940, forty billion trees succumbed to an eponymous blight.

It is extremely rare to find a purebred American chestnut tree. Any tree that remains is registered by the American Chestnut Foundation. If you find a tree that looks like an American chestnut, it’s likely a horse chestnut, a chestnut oak, or a hybrid.

American chestnuts are large, beautiful, and symmetrical. Most trees are male and produce catkins —fuzzy fronds that blossom in July and make the tree look fuzzy, or molting. After flowering, the catkins drop, the slightest bit of dew saturates the fibers, causing fermentation. The vinegary smell attracts bees, which drink the intoxicating, infertile catkin water. (I’m also a particular fan of bees).

It was in this stage of the chestnut reproduction cycle—and oddly enough, in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts—that I found my grandfather.

We were on a walk, commenting on the state of the breeze and the high clouds. Suddenly, my 85-year-old grandfather, who was undergoing cancer treatments for multiple myeloma, stumbled into a patch of drunken, vinegary chestnut catkins, drunken bees nipping at his ankles.

He marveled at the activity. In the absence of any visible panic on his part, I injected my own.

“There are bees! Grandpa! Look out! Walk carefully! Don’t step on them! Get off the sidewalk!”

He stood there.

“Get out of there! They will sting you!”

“There are so many of them.” Grandpa. Marveling.

“Grandpa! Get the hell out of there!

“Bah. I’m wearing pants.” And he waved me off and proceeded to walk, deliberately, in the way that his 85-year-old body, laden with cancer and chemo and pneumonia, always walked these days. Half shuffle, half step, without speed but with purpose.

“Well, you almost died. We’re walking back on the other side of the street.” I looked at the glorious tree and this vital man.

I felt an ache. The tree would eventually get the blight. And die. And I felt an ache, I couldn’t carry my grandfather away from the bees. What would happen to him?

I felt, not in words but in deep emptiness, that there were things on front of me that needed saving, and I hadn’t saved enough and I’d need to try harder.

I confess: I’m compelled to save people.

I affectionately term it a “calling” (but it’s more like a complex). I can see how Jesus got into the business, providing happiness, life—it’s addictive. Jesus used eternal salvation. My methods are a bit less mystical.

I just try to make people happier, loved. It’s why I write. I use words like an emotional balm, light entertainment or deeper, heavier fair that whisper to the most emotionally threadbare readers, “You are not alone.”

A few weeks ago, I was called to save someone I love: my grandfather. Well, not literally save—“Ellen, can you fly back and give me CPR? I’m choking.” But my help was needed. Grandpa had taken a turn for the worst in his treatment and needed someone around. Company.

I told my husband I was heading to the U.S. I announce things to him in this way; he recognizes my savior complex and buys into it. Or at least doesn’t stand in it’s way.

“Of course you should go. He needs you.” Releasing me, taking care of our world, my husband freed me to take care of the rest of the world. We’ve got a Batman–Alfred thing going on.

So I headed to the U.S. to save my grandfather. I was going to go with him to the hospital. Get his meds. Get his treatment. Go to the supermarket to buy green things to turn into nourishing soup and above all—because someone has to—monitor and limit his daily popcorn intake. And every day, softly, quietly, check on him in the afternoons to make sure he’s sleeping (not something far worse) and then slip out without him knowing I bothered.

I was going to save him from dying. It was up to me.

And yet, I couldn’t get him away from the bees. These horrible, drunken bees. I couldn’t even do that.

One night, after the chestnut–bee fiasco, I caught him finishing off seven-year-old olives that had turned grey with white spots. My cancerous grandfather was shoving plague olives into his mouth. Classic.

I registered some minor disapproval in the form of loud vocal notes.

He ignored me. “Bah! I worked in the food industry—those dates are nonsense.”

“Grandpa, you worked in HR at Coke twenty years ago. These look like they have smallpox.”

“It was going to waste.” But I ignored him and grabbed them and dumped them in the trash—under the coffee grinds so he wouldn’t dig them out. Because he does that. He’s not senile, he’s always been like this. Kid during the Depression.

He was fine, iron stomach, but the incident drove home a deep, ultimate truth (which coalesced later that night as I silently removed all other plague food from the fridge).

I can’t save him. Hell, I can’t save anyone. No one can.

As much as I want to, it’s impossible to save anyone. To save someone, what does that even mean? Keep them alive? Make them happy, all the time? To do that, you must take ownership, make it yours, exact all the necessary decisions, and change its path from one of unhappiness and destruction to one of joy and salvation. Can I or anyone else ever own another human being and everything that could possible affect him? And doesn’t it diminish his power if I tried to do that?

Physical, mental, emotional distress—the only person who can own these things is the person who is these things. In this case, my grandfather.

He saves himself. I assist.

I can’t make his world airtight, mold-free. Bee-free. And even if I could, he’s still going to walk into the kitchen, in a towel wrapped casually around his waist and announce—even more casually—that he’s been in the 200-degree sauna for the last twenty minutes but “don’t worry, I didn’t fall asleep this time.”

Does anyone ever want to own that? Not this Batman.

An unrequited savior complex can easily turn into despair if you don’t realize that although we are limited in how much we affect another human being, we can still influence them and protect them, guide them. Influence to do good, to make him happy and healthy some of the time.

In the course of the past month, with the help of this lovely man whose genes I share, I transmuted my SAVING COMPLEX into what I call a MARVELING FIXATION.

The best thing you can do for another person is witness and understand them; the worst is remove their power.

The more I consider it, the more I think most people don’t even want to be saved. Ideally, if they could, I’m sure most would much rather save themselves. I think we can help each other to this by bearing witness and providing understanding. We all want to be seen and understood; it’s why we marry and form bonds, why we seek fame, legacy, and connection. Put our name on things like trees and law firms. No one wants to pass from dust to dust not having left a mark. Not being seen.

If you give someone that, if you bear witness and understand them, you won’t save them per se, but you will give them the greatest thing in your power to give.

I call it “marveling.” (And I’m fixated on it.)

It means paying attention, listening, nurturing, and finding real joy in someone else’s gifts and abilities. It’s different from “saving” because it reduces the responsibility and keeps their power intact.

I marveled a lot this past month. I didn’t plan to, couldn’t help it. My grandpa is absolutely fascinating. (And funny, kind, warm, humorous, and just as quirky as his firstborn, my father.)

I’m not going to air his personal stories. My multi-talented cousin did it generously in her recent interview with him on Storycorps.

We discussed our country, heritage, history, his youth, my grandmother, my father as a child, personal philosophies, concepts of self and compassion for others, selfishness, greed and a lot about his childhood and early life as an adopted orphan in Western, Michigan.

We covered a lot. We’ve always been this way, old souls.

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For a man who for the most part putters on the periphery, blending into and nourishing our outsized family like a gentle breeze rather than the stone-willed patriarch, my grandfather, nevertheless, has a mind like a Ginsu.

He’s a marvel.

I respected his life, his choices, his will. And found real pleasure in learning more about who he is and what he’s done.

The only moment I did any “saving” was when we took too long a walk—the last 100 meters back to the house proved to be too much. I didn’t notice because of his momentum, but when it became apparent he couldn’t keep himself upright, I grabbed him and braced his torso against my chest. He was heavy, a former athlete, lots of muscle.

I held him, a forced hug (Grandpa’s not much of a hugger) until he was ready to stand on his own. I might have saved his face from kissing the asphalt, but that’s it.

I left Boston last week. For the past month, I accomplished zero substantive work. I wrote and published nothing. I tried, but as my savior complex took a sabbatical, I didn’t need to write and then couldn’t.

When I left, we embraced briefly at the airport (Grandpa—not a hugger). I left him in the care of other family members and soon, hopefully, his own devices.

“You’ll look forward to some alone time, won’t you?”

“I will, Grandpa. And soon, you’ll be on your own again? You want that.”

“I do.”

Seen. Known. Understood. It’s the best I can do. That and stand between him and moldy food.

I’ll try to manage my savior complex—channel it into marveling, noticing, understanding. It’ll be interesting to see what it does to my writing.

In the meantime, I have to tell my husband we need to buy chestnut trees. I haven’t given up on them. And he’ll acquiesce because, above all, he sees and understands me.

Which is why I love him.

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