On the day before my mother-in-law’s move to an assisted living facility, I had to meet the nurse supervisor to discuss details of the transfer. When I walked into the unit, a petite woman I’ll call Sallie approached me dressed in stretchy maroon pants and matching knit blouse, with perfect hair and deep maroon lips. Sallie took one of my hands and asked me my name. Then, she motioned me to lower my head and put my ear close. In a conspiratorial, low tone of voice, she informed me that she runs the place, so come to her for anything I need. Sallie disappeared for about ten minutes, then returned, making a beeline for me, and repeated her introduction. “I run the place,” she said in a loud whisper.
The wait was long; the nurse was in a meeting. I sat on a sofa in the well-appointed gathering area. Across from me, a group of four women were sitting in a circle conversing—or at least one of them was. I waved—as I am liable to do to strangers—and the talkative one waved back and asked if I was moving in. She paused, looked at me again, and giggled.
In the meantime, a skinny-as-a-rail lady with pigtails, a crooked gait, one sneaker on and one off, approached the group of ladies and asked, with impaired but intelligible speech, if anyone could help her tie her shoes. Every one of them looked at her like she was crazy, except for the outgoing one, “Dorothy,” who said she would, but she didn’t think she could get down low enough to do it.
I called over to the lady with pigtails and told her I would be happy to help. She walked over, repeating: “You are so nice. You are so, so nice.” I wanted to tell her that my time is coming fast to have my shoes tied for me. I thought about Peter, and the Lord’s prediction about his old age: …when you are old you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you…
She plopped down on the couch; gravity robbed her of a slow, graceful descent. I got down on my knees, because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get up if I bent over. I stretched the shoe she didn’t have on yet and got it about halfway on her foot. This was no Cinderella fit. While encouraging her to push her foot, I slipped a finger in the heel of the shoe. I took a deep breath to hide the pain of her heel pressing against my finger and the shoe, cutting off the circulation. She pushed her foot and I wiggled the shoe, sliding my finger out at the same time, and we did it. We got it on. I looked up. Her face was so close, our foreheads almost touched. She said thank-you with her eyes.
After tightening and lacing her shoestrings, I straightened up. “There you are,” I said. I silently thanked God, because he knew after weeks of stress what would fill up my empty well: Kneeling. Tying shoes. Smiling.
Dorothy came up and began talking a blue streak. She moved into the place one month ago and was eager to give me the low-down. “The food is good,” Dorothy exclaimed. She patted her belly like Winnie the Pooh.
At least five times, Dorothy told me a wonderful story about her farm, which was eight miles due east. She described cattle and chickens and the house she lived in alone for many years.
Dorothy’s face radiated mischief and joy. She said her family tells her that her memory is failing. She laughed: “Well, what do you ‘spect ? I am 87!” She walked toward one of the hallways. “I hope I can remember which room is mine. I’ve only been here ’bout a month.”
Diminished mental faculties and physical deficits have not stopped the laughter. Dorothy found lots to laugh about. The lady in pigtails whose altered fine motor skills kept her from tying her shoes—smiled. Sallie enjoyed her job as greeter—the doorkeeper who served with purpose.
Theologian Karl Barth said: “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” I saw it that day. I felt it. And I laughed—not at them, but with them.
Top right photo via Google Image, Creative Commons License
Lower left photo by Colin Gray, via Flickr, Creative Commons License
Your writing always bring a smile to my face. Thank you and God for knowing just when the time was right for me to read this. We have always shared the treasured love and laughter of our elders. I miss a couple of Virginias in particular who kept our sides in stitches and now keep our memories light and happy. (Should it worry me a little that there are not so many elders in my life now?)
Thank you for reading my stories. I am grateful for the many times we have gathered around a table and laughed ’til we almost cried. Without mirth and merriment, I would be a dull girl.
Thanks to you, I was able to meet those dear Virginias from your life. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a silk mop until then.
Looking forward to another laughter fest, soon.
You have a gift girlfriend. I love reading your stories
Thank you for reading my stories, dear Katie. Your words gladden my heart.
I truly love the words: “I silently thanked God, because he knew after weeks of stress what would fill up my empty well. Kneeling, tying shoes, smiling.” Oh, for many more Christians who will see a nursing home as a place to go, smiling and laughing with the residents, and the precious reward of having lifted up spirits! How much they need our attention, outside-world conversation, appreciation for who they are and how brave they are every day. My mother would have been that one demented woman in the conversation group, saying heaven only knows what, laughing as she talked to others in the group, who may have had only a smidgen of comprehension but who just long for people to talk to them and laugh with them. Make jokes about yourself. Tell them you are glad you don’t have to wait for someone to finally come and take YOU to the bathroom, etc. Share the joke of the predictable food. Yes, tie their shoes. Be their friend.
Oh, how it gladdens my heart to listen to your words, and I am thankful for them. When I visit with my older, laughing friends, I am humbled. My life is enriched by their wisdom, tenacity, courage, laughter….so much bounty gleaned from longevity.
Praying for you as you serve where you are. Keep a merry heart.
Lisa, I love, love, love your stories!!! Thanks for sharing
Thank you, friend! I am so glad you enjoy them. Advocacy for the elderly is important to me. This piece was a pleasure to share.
I love this—a story of laughter in a place that, for many, suggests the opposite. The grace of God, indeed.
Thank you, Kristin. Our bodies may betray us as we grow older, but nothing can diminish the strength of a merry heart.