If I were to write a book entitled, “Fun Times with Dad at the Nursing Home” it would be a short book indeed, something like, “Famous Jewish Athletes” or “Greatest French Army Battles of World War II.” But last night, I actually got a joke out of him, a brief moment of warmth and humanity. Looking back on it, it wasn’t much of a joke, but it came from my Dad and it made him smile so it’s worth repeating.
I arrived just as the nurse was exiting his room. She had been attempting to get him to eat his dinner without much success. I took a look under the brown plastic dome and saw that he had made only a small dent into his mashed potatoes and that was about it. But in fairness to Dad, the rest of it didn’t look fit for human consumption. Since my brother had spent much of the day with him, I had learned that he had eaten two big meals earlier in the day so I wasn’t too concerned. Still, I rummaged around in his “pantry” and found some Ritz crackers with peanut butter. He ate a few of those with some grape juice and seemed content. Then I probably did the wrong thing by asking him if he wanted me to round up something sweet for dessert. He looked over at me and with a clear, relatively loud voice said, “I need all the sweetening up I can get.” Then he smiled broadly and a twinkle came to his eyes. Those nine words redeemed the entire visit.
Most of the time when I’m with Dad his eyes seem vacant, like he’s never entirely in the room with me. But last night was different. We sat and chatted back and forth about normal things and he added remarks here and there and smiled a lot. In a season of defeats, this felt like victory.
After our visit, my task was to escape the “gauntlet” that is the long hall between Dad’s room and the lobby. Tonight the halls were more full than usual, with wheelchairs filled with some of the most heart-wrenching people I’ve ever encountered. I don’t know them or their stories, but I’ve learned not to make eye-contact. To admit this shames me. I should have a bigger heart than that. But, it’s the only way I can deal with this one particular woman. During one of my first visits I noticed her bright, alert eyes. She looked younger than the rest of the patients, and there was the unmistakable evidence that she was once quite beautiful. I made the mistake of smiling at her and saying “hello.” Suddenly she shouted out with a young sounding voice, “Are you going to take me home with you?!” Temporarily horrified, I stammered, “No Ma’am, not this time.” Then she let out an anguished scream as if I had shattered what was left of her heart into a million pieces. I quickly moved along down the hall and out the door. Later I was told she asks everyone she sees this same question and responds the same way to everyone. This was supposed to make me feel better, but all it did was make me avoid eye contact with everyone in the place, probably the worst, most un-Christian coping mechanism in history. Whatever gets me down the hall in one piece is my preferred approach, an embarrassing utilitarian refutation of Christ’s command to care about the “least of these.”
Maybe I’ll get better at this. Maybe with experience, these visits will become easier. Maybe at some point I’ll be able to overcome my cowardice and look these people in the eye.