How do I begin to paint a picture of my most recent visit to the nursing home? Can I just say it was an emotional roller coaster as I flip flopped along with my dear Helen from deep sadness to belly laughs and laugh out loud hilarity?
First her face lights up like a Christmas tree as she declares how happy she is to see me... and within minutes she is shedding tears for the same reason. I realize immediately how important my visits have become to this one who now introduces me to everyone as her very good friend. I pulled up a chair and allowed her to bring my hand up to her cheek. It seems to comfort her to have that closeness. We chatted for only a few minutes before the tears came again.
"I miss Bob," she said. "Is he dead?" (Bob is her husband) who died many years ago. For a moment I thought about how to answer this question. My reply was, "yes, he's in heaven with Jesus. You told me he went there." I was totally unprepared for her next statement. "Well, if I had a gun, I'd just shoot myself so I could go there too." "I bet you really miss him," I said. "You must have something else to do here on earth since you are still here with us," I said. "Like, making me laugh and being my friend," I added. She didn't seem convinced. Her next words took us lower on the roller coaster ride. "I'm so bored... there's nothing to do here," she said. How am I to assure her she has a purpose and makes a difference, knowing how long and seemingly unexciting the days are here. In fact, residents were coming in to sit at the dining room tables an hour and a half before time for dinner. Is this not the stark reality of what my friend is trying to say to me?
Like the slow ascent up the higher climbs of the roller coaster, I can only say God gave me thoughts, things to say and questions to ask to lighten the mood and take the conversation to a different place. Before I knew it, she was smiling and telling me again about the days her father played a five string tenor banjo. "You told me your dad played a five string tenor banjo when you were a little girl. And you said you danced. Do you remember that?" I asked. "Yes, I tap danced on the stage for dimes. That was how I got some money to spend. They would throw dimes up on the stage for me," she said."I danced up a breeze," she added. She couldn't remember what songs they played but tapped her good hand in time and hummed along as I hummed WildMountain Flower from my kindergarten teaching days.
"Do you see that man over there?" she said. "He keeps his tongue sticking out all day long.... One day when I get the nerve, I'm going to tell him to put it back in his mouth!" she said. The emphatic way in which she expressed her disdain for this man's habit made me laugh out loud. It was as if my laughter was contagious. My friend Helen began to laugh with an impish smile that told me she'd been wanting to share this thought for some time. I tried to remain respectful and maintain my composure. The man was not aware of our conversation since he was in the far corner of the room (for which I am thankful) and so I found myself laughing out loud until happy tears ran down my face. I felt this laughter come from deep inside my belly as I realized the pleasure my friend had gotten from telling me her secret.
It wasn't long before I was privvy to some other residents true feelings as I joined Helen for dinner. An attractive woman much younger than most of the others but also finding herself a part of this new social setting said quite loudly, "I'll be glad when you run out of this pasta dish.... since you obviously don't know how to cook it. It's like mush...." And then later..."Did you hear that? She said she actually wants jelly on her GARLIC BREAD! Well, I've heard everything now!" The white haired woman next to her replied, "Who wants jelly on her garlic bread?" Rolling her eyes, the first woman murmured..."You know... it's AMY," she said with disgust. Before the meal was over, I also heard this same woman say in response to the whiny sing song voice of another droning on through the entire meal say, "If someone will give me a stopper, I'll put a stopper in that!" I found myself feeling an ambivalence... a feeling that something irreverent was taking place and quite simultaneously I found the true expression of feelings refreshing.
Before I left, I mentioned it was calling for snow. My friend Helen, without skipping a beat said, "Then you can stay the night and we can make snow cream." The wheels seemed to be turning as she watched to see if I would accept her invitation. "I don't think they will let me do that. They don't have a bed for me," I said. "Oh," she murmured sadly. "But I'll be back really soon to see you. I guess I better get home, it's getting dark out, " I said. The woman across the dining table strained to get out of her wheelchair."I need to find a ride home if it's getting dark," she said to no one in particular. Pat, sitting to my left rolled her eyes as if to say, 'she does this all the time.' I couldn't help but wonder how long it had been since she'd been to the place she once called home.
I stepped out into the night air, walked on two healthy legs to the car and drove myself to the place I call home. I made my own meal for dinner and enjoyed it while watching my favorite television show. When I grew tired, I nestled into my own bed knowing I'd wake up to make many of my own choices as to how to spend my next day. It was quite some time before I fell asleep. Like a slide show running through my mind, I saw first one frame and then another...eyes filled with tears and deep sorrow, hands shaking and grown men and women wearing adult size bibs. I heard the sounds of the piano being played by one as another said, "I'll have some HOT coffee... as she also rolled her eyes as if to say "in your dreams." I felt a deep sadness that my friend and others like her have come to live in a place so unlike their own home. How would I ever get past the sad feelings and rest after this experience?
I framed the picture in my mind. There we are, me and Helen, with her sideways grin after experiencing a stroke, we're belly laughing aloud together until both our eyes are filled with tears. "You make me laugh out loud, Helen," I said. That's why you're here. You make me laugh. You're my good friend."
She shared her heart with me. I felt her pain and her laughter. We are real friends. I'm glad she's still here.