The Window on the Heart


by Kent Nerburn

I walk to my window to greet the day. I chose this window for my own long ago, as one chooses a chair or a spoon or a mug. I seek it out each morning before the others in the house awake. It faces slightly to the north, so the morning sun enters it obliquely, giving the light the delicious subtlety of indirection. From it I can watch all of life turn toward the coming of the day.

Whenever I have had to move from a house, the memory I have carried with me the memory that has most animated my spirit is always the memory of the light, and the way it cascaded in through the windows and illuminated the passing moments of the day.
Sometimes a shaft, sometimes a soft glow, sometimes a brilliant illumination that made me fear that the house itself was on fire. But it is always in the memory of light that the spirit of the house comes to life
This house I live in now will forever touch my spirit for the way it offers me the dawn. From my window the day arrives like the distant chanting of a prayer.

I sit before the window and watch the growing dawn. A memory of Alice rises before me, for it was Alice who taught me about windows. She was small, frail, framed in a halo of light from the window before which she sat. I approached cautiously, and knelt beside her.
"Alice?"I asked.
She turned to me. Her eyes were cloudy, but filled with light.
"They said you would be willing to talk to me about life here."
She nodded.
This was not a task I had relished. I was writing a small piece about life in nursing homes, and my sense of rage at the heartless way our elders must end their lives had almost overwhelmed me.
My heart had been torn a thousand ways as I had walked the halls and spoken to the residents in these places that claimed to care for our aged and give dignity to their final days. It had been a gauntlet of pain and sorrow. The lonely; the incoherent lost in their private memories; the dazed; the angry; those who grabbed your arm and begged "Daddy, Daddy, take me out of here, I want to go home" -- all of them and more had confronted me and filled me with a deep and unassuageable grief.
With each footstep tears welled up within me and I raged against a heartless God, a heartless society, the cruel ways of nature and the sadnesses of life. My heart did not have enough tears to purge the rage and pain that were washing across me.
"You must talk to Alice," the nurses had said. "She will show you something."
Reluctantly I agreed to do so
And now I was beside her. She said "Good morning" but her eyes were staring out the window. I did not wish to disturb her; I kept my silence.
"Look," she said finally, pointing out the window. The traffic flowed noisily below. The cacophony of a life she would never again share rose up from the streets. I stared through her one opening into the outside world. Far in the distance was the cupola of a cathedral
"Isn't it beautiful? she said. "I come here every day to watch the sun rise. I've been all over Europe. I've seen Notre Dame and St. Peter's and the Duomo in Florence. But none was more beautiful than this, and I can see it every day.
I looked out. The sun was bursting around the edges of the dome, enveloping it in a halo of pastel light. The sun reflected off her glasses, and I could see the tears in her eyes.
We spoke a bit. I took some notes. But none of that mattered. It was the cathedral, and the dawn, and the radiant morning light that we were sharing. She reached over and grabbed my hand
"Isn't this a gift?" she said.
I did not know what to say. I had come that morning, prepared to look with sadness on the shrinking horizons of her life, to weep for her lost dreams and the tiny window that framed the boundaries of her day. But those were my tears, not hers. Her tears were for the beauty. From her window she received the spirit of the dawn.
I think often of Alice. She was an artist of the ordinary. The great French Impressionist painter Claude Monet had sat before a window, painting the cathedral at Rouen as the light played upon its surface over the course of a day. Alice was doing no different, but she painted with the colors of her heart.
I left that day changed in some fundamental way. I had wanted to define the walls of Alice's prison; she had wanted to give me the gift of the day. I had wanted to see limitation; she had wanted to show me possibility.
She had taken a moment from the seamless flow of time and space and held it up in private consecration, and we had partaken of it together in a small communion of our spirits.
As I walked back down the hall, one of the nurses who had directed me to Alice looked up from her desk.
"Did she show you something?" she asked.
"Yes" I answered softly
"Her window?"
"I thought so," she smiled, and went back to work
I walked out into the morning with the eyes of a child.

From Small Graces, by Kent Nerburn. Copyright 1998 by Kent Nerburn. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library. $15. Available in local bookstores, or by calling 800-972-6657, ext. 52.