Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Memory

Found myself thinking today of one of my more memorable Christmases several years back when I was working at a nursing home with Alzheimer’s patients. At the time I was an activity director for the people in the home, meaning it was my job, in a nutshell, to keep the troops entertained. At the time I was making 9 bucks an hour, living alone in a small apartment, and not quite sure where my life was going.

I hadn’t been home for Christmas personally in a long time, and over the years had really just kind of lost the spirit of the season altogether. This year however was different, as I had been tasked with putting the Christmas party for the unit together, and as the season went on I found myself becoming begrudgingly interested in Christmas again. Every Saturday I would put White Christmas, or It’s a Wonderful Life or some other Christmas classic on for the residents, and I really came to enjoy their nostalgic reminiscences of Christmases from years gone by.

One woman in particular stood out in my mind that winter, a little lonely woman originally from Poland named Anna, who was one of the quieter residents on the unit. She often ate her meals by herself, and although she wasn’t unfriendly, she always seemed to speak softly and she offered up very little information unless she was asked something directly.

While making the list of people who were going to attend the party, I noticed that the nurses had left Anna’s name off the list, as her health had been deteriorating recently, and the nurses felt it may be too much activity for her to handle given her recent decline. Knowing she wasn’t a particularly social person, I was therefore surprised when I walked by her room one morning and found her in her room crying softly to herself.

“What’s the matter Anna?” I asked as I came in and noticed she had taken out all kinds of Christmas cards from years past and put them on her night stand.

“I don’t get to go the party,” she explained, as she looked up at me with sad eyes.

This presented a dilemma for me, as the nurses ruled with an iron first around the unit, and didn’t take kindly to people questioning their decisions. Still, I wanted to hear more.

“Tell me why it’s so important to you Anna?”

Picking up one of her Christmas cars off the nightstand, she turned it over and over in her little hands and looked up at me again.

“My husband and I moved to America right after war, and at the time neither of us spoke any English at all. We didn’t know anyone at all in this country except for some cousins, but still, we had each other, and it was enough. Things finally changed when we went to our first Christmas party here in America at the Polish-American center by my husband’s work. We learned some of the Christmas songs that year and we used to laugh about how we learned to speak English from Bing Crosby and some of the other singers from the era. I have so many memories of my husband, but the memories of Christmas were the happiest. I know I don’t have too many Christmases left, but I was hoping this year I could go back to your party, hear some of the old songs, and think back on some of my early days with my husband.

And then I knew I had to see about getting her to the party. After much pleading and a promise that I would personally watch Anna closely to make sure she didn’t eat anything with sugar, the head nurse agreed, and Anna was delighted to hear the news. She spent the rest of the afternoon getting herself ready with the help of the CNA’s, who dressed her up in a little green dress and a red Santa’s hat to complete the outfit.

At the party, Anna was utterly transformed. She clapped her hands along with every song, and sang every word of the Christmas Carols that were led by me and the rest of the staff. During “White Christmas” she waved me over and asked if I could wheel her up to sing with the rest of the gang. I took her in as I was singing, watching her annunciate every word with such precision, and thinking of her learning to speak the language from this song so many years ago.

Sadly the party started coming to an end, and one by one we started loading the wheelchairs into the elevator to take people back to their various floors. Several people had already nodded off in their chairs, but Anna was still going strong until the last song had been sung. Wheeling her towards the door she grabbed firmly on both of her wheels and stopped.

“Do you mind if I just take one last look around?” she asked quietly, turning as she did to take one last look at the last remnants of the party. Eventually she tapped my hand and said, “ok honey,” and we continued rolling slowly towards the elevator. As I handed her off to my assistant, the elevator door began to close, and I took one last look at her and saw that she was smiling.

As the elevator door closed, I couldn't help but think the last chapter of Anna's life was also coming to a close.

Anna passed away a couple of months after that, but every Christmas I think about her and our one and only Christmas together. It reminds me of the fleeting and fragile nature of time, and how we shouldn’t take a second of the time we have with the people we love for granted.

I am reminded when I think about this of a movie I went to see as a kid with my mother called Avalon, which showed a large group of families sharing the holidays together, and then follows them through the years as the party gets smaller and smaller, until finally we are left with a single elderly man eating his holiday dinner alone. It was sad and oddly touching, and reminded me that all of us will also get old, lose loved ones, and withstand a number of changes to our own holiday traditions as people get married, start their own families, and begin to create their own new traditions over the years. And maybe one day we too may be like Anna, old and sick and lonely and longing desperately for one last chance to experience the memories of Christmas and all that entails. It reminds to not take a single thing for granted, as we truly may never pass this way again when it comes to time and fun and memories of friends and families. It was a lesson from a little old lady that I hope I’ll never forget.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Small Acts of Kindness

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
Leo Buscaglia

I watched one of my favorite movies today as I began my preparations to return to Chicago. The movie is called “Blue” and it follows a woman who has lost her husband and daughter in a car wreck as she disappears from her life, and then slowly begins the process of reconnecting to other human beings. The movie ends with a powerful look inside her memory, as pictures flash across the screen representing all of the people who touched her life in some way.

I felt like this today as I thought of all of the people that touched my life in some significant way here in Costa Rica, including dozens, if not hundreds of new friends from all over the place. But it was a blind man with a cane and a lovely lady in a wheelchair both in their 80’s that really registered the most with me today as I think about all of the ways this country has transformed my life.

It began with me attempting to push this little Costa Rica woman named Blanca to the cafeteria for lunch, when she politely touched my hand and pointed me in the other direction. Having had a great deal of experience with women refusing my requests, I politely followed her instructions. She pointed me through a labyrinth of turns in the home until we reached a little room with a man lying inside. “AquĆ­ mismo mi amigo,” (right here my friend) she said softly and slowly patted my hand.

I waited as she tapped softly on the window. Soon a blind man named Leonidas came to the door and took his position behind Blanca’s wheelchair. Slowly they began their walk to lunch, her guiding him slowly with measured directions as he adjusted to his lack of sight. It was kind of wonderful actually.

I asked around a little bit and found out that they walked like this to all of their meals together. They weren’t lovers and they weren’t romantically involved, just two people who had each lost something the other one had, who had worked out a system to get their lunch together despite the somewhat difficult circumstances.

I was incredibly touched by what I saw, and took a long look at them together as they fell into their familiar routine. I learned that they had been doing this for a long while. Anna in fact had many offers to accept a push to the cafeteria, but was always faithful to her little helper Leonidas, who seemed to relish the work of pushing her, despite the fact that he walked with a cane and had completely lost his eyesight.

The Zen Buddhists have a parable that says it is the giver who should be thankful, as they are truly the ones who may gain the most from the ebb and flow of human experience. And this applies to me as well. Although I was the one technically “giving” my time this week in Costa Rica, in the end it was me who was utterly transformed by the people I had the privilege of working with. I will never, ever forget these little acts of kindness I witnessed here, and my strongest wish is that I have somehow absorbed some lessons from all of these things I’ve seen.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Costa Rican Love Story

One of my favorite movie scenes comes from a film called "Smoke", when a writer whose wife died in a car accident begins a conversation with his friend who has taken a picture of his Cigar shop every day for ten years. The writer says he doesn’t understand, and how the pictures look the same to him. The cigar shop owner tells him that if he doesn’t slow down he’s going to miss the point, and at that moment the writer turns to a picture of his deceased wife. Then he gets it. Every day is a unique chance to appreciate the time we’ve been given. Ask anyone and they’ll probably agree with that sentiment, but living it is another matter. The writer would give anything to have just one more day with his wife, and in that moment comes to a new kind of understanding about how he is going to approach his own life.

I was reminded of this today when I spent some time in a little nursing home in Costa Rica. While there I met a wonderful little couple, Lilliam and Alvaro who got married while living at this home in 2006.

I watched them closely today as they held hands and walked slowly to the cafeteria to eat. They stopped along the way to talk to the other folks in the home, all the while checking in with each other about their little trip to go to have their lunch.

When one of these two felt pain, the other suffered as well. They had made a decision to take care of each other, even as their bodies were beginning to deteriorate to the point of almost daily bouts of pain. Somehow they had found this wonderful commitment in their 80’s, despite both having lived very full lives with other spouses, children and grandchildren. They showed me the story of their lives in pictures and stopped many times to point out something particularly funny, or of particular significance to them.

At one point Lilliam, an extremely fun-loving lady who loves to dance, softly began to cry which was a bit out of character for her as much as I could tell. My fellow volunteer asked what was wrong and she said, “Soy preocupante, mi marido soy enfermo”, (I am worried, my husband is sick.). It was quite touching and also very revealing. Although she was still very capable of singing, dancing, laughing, and having fun, this woman was clearly very deeply in love and profoundly upset thinking about her husband being in pain.

I thought about this most of the afternoon, and came to the conclusion that there really is no such thing as being “lucky” in love, despite the fact that people use that word in that context all of the time. Amazingly, many couples who seem to have very strong bonds have some “coincidental” story about how they met, and I am certainly interested in that idea in terms of synchronicity. But really I think we find these romantic coincidences occur a lot more often when we really understand the nature of love as a choice rather than some kind of act of destiny. As the Buddhist’s say, “when the student is ready the teacher appears.”

So yet another life-lesson learned as I blaze my way across this beautiful, mysterious country, where you still go to a little nondescript nursing home in a small corner of the world, and absorb perhaps one of the most powerful lessons you will ever learn. My work with these people will end next week, but they will stay in my heart forever.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Today she would show them. Today was the day she would get out of the chair and demonstrate to the ladies who made her swallow the awful pills how she could dance. Dance like the days back in Roma, when she was a young girl and the boys would wait for hours to have a dance with her, and there was champagne and beautiful flowers.

Yes today she would show them. Show them that she was not just an old lady who wet herself and needed help eating and getting dressed in the morning. Once she had beautiful dresses and she loved to go out and dance and sing and laugh, oh how she loved to laugh. She began pulling herself out of her wheelchair but her arms were simply too weak and she collapsed back into her seat. She tried again, this time getting to her feet and standing up, when she felt a firm hand on her shoulder, “Sit down Isabella!” the one with the pills shouted angrily, and again she collapsed back into the chair. Then it began to happen again, “No, not again!” she thought, but it was happening again, where the picture in her mind began to fade and she was left with nothing but silence in her head.

Isabella was in fact a great beauty at one time, and many men sought her company, but finally she found her beloved Niko, and her heart found what it truly had been looking for. Their life together was wonderful, and the only disappointment was then she was unable to have children due to an infection she had suffered during the Great War. She had in fact nearly died during the war, but God had spared her, and now at the age of 94 she had outlived almost everyone she had ever known.

Isabella had always heard that long life was a blessing, and the part of her that wanted to dance still believed this very much. But it was just that she felt so helpless sometimes, when the ladies would come and change her, and when she would be lying there with no clothes on and men would walk by and not even notice or care. She thought of the time, the first time in Roma, when Niko had kissed her. She had wanted to go further with him, but her mother said she must make men wait, and so that’s what she did.

She and Niko had waited until they had gotten married and then she gave herself to him totally and completely. He was the only man that had ever seen all of her, and now men walked by her all of the time and could see her and look at her, and she felt very ashamed. Why don’t they shut the door or cover me, she thought angrily, am I not still a woman who wants that part of her to remain private? Many men back in Italy had wanted to see her, but she was a Catholic girl and this was strictly forbidden. “Don’t they know?” she thought to herself, “Don’t they know that her father used to chase the boys away when they would come to see her too late at night?” These thoughts suddenly made her mind very tired and she put her head down and gave way to sleep.

When she awoke she was in the dining room, and someone had placed a big white bib on her so she wouldn’t spill. She looked to one side and saw a man, a handsome man, but very old, who simply stared straight ahead and paid no attention to her at all. She looked further and saw the one with pills, and decided that the time was now. She pushed herself up in the chair and got to her feet, and for a second she felt like a young girl again. She placed her arms around her imaginary partner’s neck and began shuffling her feet back and forth, imagining the grand ballrooms of Roma as she swayed back and forth. But then a hand came crashing onto her shoulder and she snapped back into the present. “Sit down before you break your neck,” the one with the pills shouted angrily. And she complied, but finally, at last she had a secret. She knew that at least for a moment she could go to a place in her mind that they couldn’t touch or take away from her. She slumped back into the chair, and soon these wonderful memories faded into silence, and Isabella’s mind grew quiet until the next time.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bernard and the Star-Spangled Banner

Bernard had always loved baseball. When he was a kid he had an old tire in his backyard and he used to hit the tire with his bat and also try and throw a strike through the center of it. He could still go there in his mind sometimes, but not as much as he liked anymore, and it made him angry. He once heard the nurse tell someone he was a "discipline problem” and he vaguely remembered that that wasn't a good thing. It was just that he wanted to be alone, and didn't see how his withering away was anyone's problem but his own.

He had been a proud man, an officer in the United States Army, and now he was in a wheelchair and couldn't even spit out a sentence without it sounding like gibberish. They told him he had had a stroke and he remembered the men coming into his house and then bringing him into the home, but there were huge patches of his life he just couldn't bring back anymore. He looked up from these frustrating thoughts and a woman was putting a white bib around his neck, and he angrily took it off and threw it on the ground.

"Now Bernard, if you keep that up you won't get to come to the Independence Day Party this afternoon," the woman scolded him.

He grunted back to her and begrudgingly let her put the bib back onto his chest. Independence Day? He thought to himself. Did she mean the Fourth of July? He closed his eyes and tried very hard to make his brain work correctly for a moment. And then he remembered, yes of course, the Fourth of July! He remembered coming back from World War 2 and how that next Fourth of July had been the most meaningful of his life. He had met his wife at the USO and they had even bought a little house with the help of the GI bill. He thought about all of the friends he had lost during World War 2 and how God had somehow spared him. Why him? He had often wondered. What had he done to be spared when so many others didn't come home? These thoughts had come rushing into his head, and now he was tired and confused by all the activity his brain had conjured up. He nodded off to sleep in his chair and reluctantly gave way to sleep.

When Bernard awoke, he looked up and he was in the middle of some kind of party. There were Red, White, and Blue streamers all over, and someone had put a party hat on his head. He looked towards the television and some men were throwing a baseball around, and he smiled and turned his attention that way. Looking around the room he saw that it was a party and he thought he might as well enjoy it. He began wheeling towards the television and got immediately exhausted. Bernard hadn't stood up in many, many years, and even a little exercise made him very tired. He heard a woman announce to the room,

"Let's all listen to the Star-Spangled Banner"...

And then he remembered, the Fourth of July!! He turned to the television and heard the words.

"Oh say can you see, by the dawn's early light!"

And he knew what he had to do. He summoned all of the strength he had and begun pushing himself up out of his chair. As he stood up he removed his hat and placed it over his heart, and the words came back to him like it was yesterday. He began singing the words out loud and as he did a single tear ran down his cheek, but no matter. It was the Fourth of July and he remembered what this day had meant to him, what he had done for his country, and the men who hadn't made it back. He continued to sing until the energy left his body and he slumped back down into his chair.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Love Conquers All

Love Conquers All

Stefania was only 5 feet tall, and as she got older she was sure she was shrinking. She was an Italian woman from the Old country and she would often revert back to her native tongue when she got agitated, which was quite often. Stefania was always quick to voice her opinion, and, although she was now 94 years old she often remarked how she didn’t belong in a nursing home with all these “old ladies.”

Aside from her distaste for the elderly, Stefania had also shown little tolerance for people of other colors throughout her life. When her daughter had brought a black friend home from High School, she had in fact become very angry and thrown the boy out of the house. Although her daughter eventually forgave her mother for this outburst, it was clear that her mother was fairly “set in her ways” when it came to people from other cultures.

Henry was a Black man of the age of 87 who also lived in the nursing home. Henry had come to live in the home after his wife of 52 years had died and his family had decided he could no longer take care of himself. Henry was a very spiritual man who had led his church choir for many years, and was still taken to belting out songs around the nursing home when the spirit moved him. As an active participant in the civil rights movement, Henry had marched on Washington with Dr. King, and he had seen America change a great deal since he had grown up in the South where he had to use separate drinking fountains and bathrooms. Still, Henry had a general distrust of White people from years of experiencing discrimination, and even in the nursing home he preferred to be assisted by the black nurses when they were available.

“Swing low, sweet chariot, comin for to carry me home,” Henry’s voice boomed throughout the halls. And at it was just at this time when Stefania came ambling by with her cane, walking very slowly and quite upset by the noise.

“Shut that racket up,” Stefania yelled into the room to no one in particular.

“A band of Angels comin for to me,” Henry’s voice continued to belt out.

Stefania could take it no more, she began advancing on Henry and lifted her cane up over her head and smashed it against Henry’s wheelchair.

The nurses came running over when they saw this and quickly escorted her away.
“It’s okay sister, God still loves you,” Henry yelled out to her as she was walking away.

Stefania looked back and made an obscene gesture at Henry as she did. Henry laughed heartily at the woman’s boldness and then yelled back,

"And I love you to"

Stefania stopped walking when she heard this and again turned to look back at Henry, this time taking him in, and wondering to herself who could love an angry old woman life her.

The religious services at the home were generally non-denominational but there were Catholic groups who came to deliver communion once a week, and also a Baptist group who came in to sing and share stories with the residents on Tuesdays. When Sunday arrived and they were passing our communion to the Catholic residents, Henry observed Stefania taking a wafer into her mouth and then making the sign of the cross and was instantly curious.

“What you got there sister?” Henry yelled out to Stefania.

“This happens to be the body and blood of our lord and savior,” Stefania admonished him.

“Well hell, I guess that won’t hurt me none, give me one too,” Henry asked, and the volunteer did as requested. Stefania was impressed by Henry’s quick conversion to Catholicism and smiled for the first time in a while. This man was starting to grow on her and she decided she might want to get to know him a little better.

A couple of days passed and Henry and Stefania were now sitting together regularly at mealtimes. Henry had taken to teaching her some songs, and when they finally got some time alone they began practicing “Go tell it on the mountain,” which they both liked singing very much. Beyond the singing though, they both had begun to develop a deep curiosity about each other. At mealtimes they started inching closer and closer towards each other until eventually their shoulders were touching when they ate. Stefania enjoyed this closeness, and was beginning to feel something she hadn’t felt in quite some time.

It was a few short days later when they started holding hands during activities and the nurses were quite amused how this little couple had begun to look out for each other. Despite Stefania’s diabetes which prevented her from having sugar, Henry would hide his desserts under his shirt for her during mealtimes so she could have something sweet to eat when they were alone. She was very flattered by his bravery, and, when he had presented her with a prized piece of chocolate, she kissed him on the cheek in a show of appreciation. It was the first man she had kissed romantically other than her husband in 80 years, and she had forgotten how exciting it really could be.

The next Tuesday was Christmas Eve which was always a huge visiting day at the home. Stefania’s large Italian family had all come down to the nursing home and were anxiously combing the halls looking for their mother. One of the nurses directed them into the recreation room, and when they turned the corner they were greeted by a rather surprising site. It was there 94 year old mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, in a room full of Black people, holding hands with a well-dressed Black gentleman, singing “Nobody know the troubles I’ve seen” at the top of her lungs.

Her daughter looked on in a mix of fascination and wonder. Her mother, who had spent her entire life preaching to her that people should “stay with their own kind” singing Negro spirituals was such a shock to her she almost couldn’t process it. She looked back at her mother, and saw her smile at the old man and she was again amazed at her newfound happiness. Something had changed in her mother’s life and she wanted to know more about it. What was it? What force could she have found to undo so many years of bitterness? She grabbed her husband’s hand and began walking up to kiss her mother. Amazed at these new developments in her little mother’s life.

Stardust Memories

Stardust Memories
Thomas heard a noise and wheeled himself over to the dining room to take a closer look. He heard a group of them singing the song “The old folks at home,” and then a man began to read. “Stephen Foster wrote this song about how no matter how far we travel or what sadness the world imposes on us, all our hearts ache for the best memories of childhood, the security of a family and parents, and the familiarity of a home.”

Thomas was very moved by these words but trying hard not to show it. That statement described exactly how he felt, and he often found himself springing up in bed in the middle of the night and calling for his mother and father. Most of the time he knew they weren’t around anymore, but it was just that he didn’t always feel safe. Something had happened to his mind but he didn’t know what it was and it often frightened him. He remembered his mother so vividly in the dress she wore around the house and how she used to make cookies for him after school sometimes. He shook off these thoughts and tried to stay in the present, he was a physician after all, and he had raised a family of his own, hadn’t he? He couldn’t exactly remember, but he did remember his brothers and sisters, and again he closed his eyes and drifted back.

This time he saw his older brother running though a marsh with his fishing pole and how he was doing his best to keep up with him. They had spent the day at the pond swapping stories and catching fish and it had been one of the happiest days of his life. Later coming back to their home he remembered how his brother had told his father how well he had done and how great he had felt that day.

He snapped back to the present and he heard them singing another song and he couldn’t believe they would interrupt him like this.

“You wandered down the lane and far away, leaving me a song that would not die,” they went on, and then the man began to read again.

“Hoagie Carmichael wrote the song “Stardust” about the pang of nostalgia he felt upon visiting his old college campus and seeing the old spots where couples used to go to steal those precious moments alone.”

And again he was amazed at how moved he was by this comment. He too got nostalgic thinking about those old college days and yet just now he couldn’t remember them. He closed his eyes tightly and tried to remember but again he was back in his childhood and saw her sitting across the room, Katie Callahan, his first love, and he remembered her so vividly he could truly see her. She had been the prettiest girl in the class and when she chose to sit with him at lunch that day he thought he was the luckiest guy on the face of the earth. He hadn’t thought about her in years, and now he couldn’t get her out of his head. What was going on with his mind, he wondered? But it was no matter; it had been a very pleasurable afternoon and one he hoped he wouldn’t forget. That night when he called for his parents in bed the nurse came and held his hand and he felt better. He knew the memories would come back sooner or later, and when they did he would be happy again. He drifted back to sleep, dreaming of his youth and the wonderful times he had had as a child.