My grandmother was a remarkable woman.
She was tiny and frail, independent and proud. She cooked her own meals, creating curious, crazy concoctions with ingredients like tofu and carob. She kept a garden. She loved playing Scrabble and lived for Wheel of Fortune. She didn’t drive, but it didn’t matter; we took her where she needed to go, and took her with us wherever we went. During holidays, she decorated the windows with cardboard cutouts and put out all the pictures my brother and I had ever colored. For Christmas, she always bought me dolls, even as I got older. This may all sound unremarkable—like anyone’s grandmother. What makes mine remarkable is the profound effect her gentle presence had on my life.
I was too young to appreciate the wisdom she held. Too young, I took her for granted. For twelve years she lived with my family, but I never thought to share her life. I was much too busy. There was a whole world outside the house we lived in, and I was anxious to explore it. I didn’t have time to play Scrabble, and I didn’t care to know the secrets locked behind her brown eyes. Now, when the questions come, it is too late.
Death is a hard lesson for a fifteen-year-old.
My grandmother died as quietly as she lived; but it was like an avalanche to me, started by a single falling rock. She fell ill and passed away in just twelve days. She didn’t look sick, sitting in her bed, telling me with a smile that maybe she would feel better in time for my school play. Hospice gave her no more than a week. It was not enough time to make up for all the lost hours.
My life slowly unraveled. I hated myself for being so mean to her by not having done more to show how much I loved her. My grades fell. I felt lost at everything. I wished upon a thousand stars, praying for a miracle—answers, salvation—wishing my grades weren’t turning to cobwebs, wishing normality wasn’t rising like smoke away from me, leaving me reeling with regret, confusion and an overwhelming sadness.
My grandmother’s death is irrevocable, and I can never be the granddaughter I wish I had been. But her memory, her strength of character, and the grace and dignity in her final moments, when she took God’s hand, have lifted my spirit and inspired me. I realize it sounds worn to say I want to make a difference. Such a concept is vague. But, I have made a promise to myself to make a difference in someone else’s life as well as my own.
I have found a special place not far from my home, a subculture of sorts hidden from the rest of the world within a plain brick building called Walton Manor. It’s a nursing home, a place where people are tucked neatly away when they become too old to dress, cook and clean, and care for themselves. Too old to walk or move about freely. Some are blind. Many are hard of hearing. Most are without family, friends, forgotten. They are less fortunate than my grandmother ever was. They have sold their homes and given up the lives they knew, replacing it all with a single room…a shoe box of photographs…and tales to tell behind weary, blue eyes.
I see my youth in their eyes.
The men, who were once dashing, who fought in wars and smoked cigars, and were just boys during the depression, now wear pajamas all day, anticipate Bingo and a nurse to escort them to the bathroom. The ladies, too, who once wore white gloves, danced to big bands and were all virgin brides, now dance polkas with me and tell me they love me just because I’m willing to talk to them.
I try to be a burst of youth, a helpful friend, a friendly smile. Sometimes I am. It warms my heart to see how happy they get when I ask about their grandchildren. I’ve touched someone and made their day a little better. Other times, the sunshine I feel is dissipated when I see the futility and hopelessness. Helen tells me her sister is coming to take her home soon, but I know it will never happen. Or the helplessness of a man, partially naked as he calls to me, asking me to help him find his shorts. Dignity is stripped when one becomes so reliant on others. When I had just begun volunteering, I was confronted with a lady with Alzheimer’s, who insisted I was her niece and I needed to eat my tomato soup. When I protested, she began to weep, clutching me with her withered hands, pleading. I know now that I can not help her, but there are many there I can help. For me volunteering is a humbling experience. It puts my life into perspective. Sometimes it is not easy for me to watch, but I am richer for it.
Not all are bedridden. On Halloween, we had a costume party. Among the ghosts and goblins, Hazel was a little baby, Flora a tiger, and Frank a streetwalker. Helen taught me how to polka and told me about her late husband whom she had met at a dance 45 years ago. Mary and Tom are still together, still married and dancing, their feet shuffling around in teeny orthopedic steps. Like Helen and her husband and Tom and Mary, I can only hope that I will find such an endearing love in my lifetime. Among other activities, last Fall we took a field trip to a garden center. A handful of residents, some wheelchair bound, others needing an arm to hold on to made their way around Autumn displays, pumpkins and haystacks, enjoying one of the last warmer October afternoons. This past Christmas, we decorated a tree. When I asked Frank if he wanted to go sit with me by it, he guffawed and remarked that when he was a boy “you sure as hell didn’t gather around a plastic tree!” Every day brings a new experience one would never have expected yesterday. Walton Manor survives on rugged perseverance and a staff that is compassionate and efficient. The home is operated a day at a time—a moment, an activity, a meal, a smile—all for the purpose of making the residents comfortable.
I do many different things as a volunteer, from calling Bingo and passing out mail (the residents find a special joy in junk mail) to going room-to-room with a juice cart, targeting those most in need of liquids to prevent dehydration. I feel both appreciated and enriched. What is most rewarding is when I am able to interact with the residents, especially those who don’t get many visitors. I have developed a unique relationship with one lady who rarely gets visitors or mail. Bedridden, her only entertainment is a clock radio on her night stand, which she leaves set on an AM gospel station. She is soft spoken and articulate, and I often spend hours talking with her about her past and my future.
From my experience at Walton Manor I am taking with me a renewed appreciation for the elderly and all there is to be learned from them. I have also grown to realize the importance of every day and how to make every day worthwhile. From talking to the residents, I have been introduced to their pasts. Their memories are like chronologies charting history. I hope that when I am their age, I will have such vivid and interesting memories and someone with whom to share them.
I chose to volunteer with the elderly because I wanted to make it up to my grandmother. I know she loved me and, whether I made a point of showing it or not, she knew I loved her. Volunteering was something I felt in my heart I had to do. My grandmother believed firmly in Heaven and angels and the power of love. I know she’s up there watching over me and is proud of my work and all I’ve accomplished.
My service at Walton Manor has taught me to value life. Every day, every one of God’s souls is precious. I have come to realize it is important to show love and compassion, not only to your loved ones but to anyone in need. I’ve been told that I’m beautiful by the residents. I know they tell me because I’m nice to them. But sometimes I do feel beautiful to be sharing my youth with these ageless, endearing folk who are sharing their memories with me.
On my night stand are dried white roses. They look dead, but they’re just dried. Preserved forever…for awhile. I am gentle with their yellowed petals. They were from my grandmother’s funeral. I read a poem at the Mass about how presents aren’t promises and kisses aren’t contracts. I’ve learned….
In life there are no guarantees, except the promises we make to ourselves. And there is no greater joy than those we keep.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.