Why must I spend so much time nodding and smiling, when my to-do list is so long?
What is it about nursing homes and hospitals that makes me squeamish? I thought to myself as I entered The Mira. This was home to a 98-year-old lady from the church and a man several decades younger who needed extensive care following a severe stroke. Is it the smells? Or does entering here force me to think about of the brutality of aging?
Ignoring the butterflies in my stomach, I swung open the heavy doors and set my course by the sounds of music from down the hallway.
Knowing that Dick loved music, I figured that if there were a gathering that included singing, he would be there. The sounds led me through double doors into a common room. People were dancing. Some shuffled awkwardly and others pushed wheelchairs about slowly, but you could tell that inwardly they were dancing with grace. I slid a chair beside Dick. Swinging my leg over the chair, I sat on it backward with my arms folded over the back, my chin resting on them.
“How are you today, Dick?” I ventured.
Our eyes met, locking in a silent gaze. Apparently no words could be found inside the man to express his thoughts. Silence, a long stretch of silence, was all that followed my greeting. I would try something else.
“Hazel was out to church on Sunday. She seems to be doing well.”
More silence. Deafening silence. No apparent recognition of his wife’s name or of church.
Maybe, behind his blue eyes was the desire to say something, but that desire was chained by a body that did not cooperate with its owner. I wanted to look away, to scramble for comfort, but that felt rude. After all, he seemed quite comfortable simply for us to keep looking at each other.
I wondered if he even recognized me. We sat together a long time. He gazed blankly into my eyes. I supposed he was running my image through his memory bank in search of a match.
I recalled my trips to Dick’s farm, a testament to his creativity and ingenuity. He had taken the remains of a worn-out school bus and turned it into a functional sawmill. I can still point to posts holding up our lean-to and boards on our old chicken coop that were milled by Dick on that transformed bus. I pictured the homemade motor home in which they as a family traveled across the country.
It seemed such a shame that those calloused hands that could make anything mechanical work, that could fix anything broken, that felled trees and milled timber, were now soft, white, and shaky. In that moment I grew a bit angry at life, even at God, for allowing my friend to suffer as he did. I wanted to know that if I lived my life for God, as Dick had, that it would conclude with dignity. I —
“Are you going to preach now?” Dick interrupted my mental meandering.
I smiled and patted his back. It felt good to be remembered. But my heart was heavy from the acute reminder of the harshness of growing old. Am I going to preach? No, Dick, not now. But if I were, what would I preach?
Could I hold onto the truth that God is good, even when the evidence around me seems to contradict it? I definitely prefer living by sight, but so often am called to live by faith. With these thoughts rattling around in my mind, I left the dance to find Ruth. She was in a semi-private room down the hall.
“Hi, Ruth. I’m Pastor Scott,” I yelled, answering the question posed by her stare.
Without hesitation Ruth inquired, “How is your new baby? Is it a boy or a girl?”
“It’s a boy, Ruth, and he is doing just fine. Still does not have a handle on sleeping through the night, but other than that, doing fine.”
Ruth had a pencil in her hand that she was using to compute a mathematical equation on scrap paper. On the back of a word search puzzle, she was struggling with two large numbers, subtracting the smaller number from the larger one. The larger number I recognized as the year in which we were living. The smaller number did not ring a bell. The answer to her equation I saw was 118.
“How old am I?” she asked.
Remembering she was quite proud of her age, I answered the way she preferred her age to be told, “If I remember right, you are in your 99th year.”
“Are you sure?”
“No, but I bet we can figure it out.” I said, clueing into her math exercise. “Can I borrow your paper? Let’s see, what year were you born?” She did not have a problem producing that number.
“Now if we subtract that from this year, it would make you … 97.”
I wondered if she was happy or disappointed to hear she was a whole year younger than she’d thought, not to mention the gap between the reality and the possible 118 she had calculated.
Because I am a pastor and not a mathematician, I checked over my work. Whoops! I spotted an error that brought her age up to 98. I apologized for the mistake, then added another year with her word game, making her “in her 99th year.”
“Oh,” she sighed. “Your youngest child? Is it a boy or a girl?”
“He’s a little fella.”
“O-kay,” she sang, giving us permission to have had a boy.
We turned over the scrap paper revealing a word search puzzle. I asked if she would like to work the puzzle with me.
“I already did it.” she stated matter-of-factly.
I have to think so hard when I visit. How could she have done it? There was not a mark on the paper, no indication that this puzzle was ever started, let alone finished. How could I respond to that?
“O-kay,” I sang, giving her permission to have finished the puzzle.
Sensing my bewilderment, she explained that shecompleted it in her head, not on the paper. I asked if I could circle the words on the paper. She did not have a problem with that, but doubted if she could remember where they all were. It sounded to me like we could start from scratch, enjoying the afternoon searching for words together.
It was a Christmas puzzle, and we were off, taking turns finding words. As I reached into a drawer for my own pen, I spotted more scrap paper with more math. Sometimes she ended up being quite young, sometimes she gave Noah a run for his money, and sometimes she ended up 98. I felt sorry for her struggling hard to do the tasks that were so simple only a few years ago. Why does it have to be this way?
“Snowman” and “hayride” were along the edges and easy to find. After she discovered “Christmas Carol” from corner to corner, she inquired again as to the gender of the latest addition to our family.
“A boy, a boy,” she repeated, squinting her eyes as if to squish it into her mind with more permanence.
I wanted to assure her that she could ask me a hundred times and I would not care. But I knew it was for her sake she wanted to remember, not mine.
Again I wondered about growing old, and what that would look like for me. What would I want in a visit from my pastor? What would I appreciate him doing? I knew I would not like to be asked the million questions I usually posed to Ruth. She must have felt a lot of pressure.
I decided I would probably deem it a pretty good day simply to sit and explore a word search with my pastor. That thought lifted the pressure I felt to help her remember it was boy, to find a psalm that fit her situation, to say something wise, or even to pray the right prayer.
I put my feet up with hers on a footstool and relaxed, giving Ruth not my wisdom, brilliance, or professional platitudes, but simply my presence. It was a rare and beautiful moment of believing my presence alone was a meaningful gift.
“Mistletoe,” I said, “how hard can it be to find ‘mistletoe’?” Though it was my turn, Ruth found “mistletoe” for me. It was written backwards. (I did not know that was allowed in a word search.) We mused at her ability to find all the backwards ones, her probably thinking I’d get better as I matured, and me thinking she was doing pretty well for being “in her 99th year.”
I was starting to enjoy myself, oblivious to my own squeamishness, when Ruth’s roommate yelled loud enough for the whole nursing home to hear, “Should we tell your minister we are quarantined because of our diarrhea?”
“Did she say something?” Ruth inquired looking up from the puzzle.
“I’m not sure,” I lied, smiling nervously to myself and trusting God would forgive my lie and either keep me from getting diarrhea or befriend me through it. “Look, here is ‘Christmas tree’ and there is ‘Bethlehem.’ Your turn.”
I looked out the window as Ruth picked out her next orderly word from the chaos of letters. Who else, I wondered, has the privilege of sitting down in the afternoon doing a word search with a friend? I felt blessed to be Ruth’s pastor.
I did read a psalm with her and I did pray with her, but mostly I just sat with her.
I know what you are wondering, well forget it, I’m not telling. You’ll never know if it was a play on words or simply a figure of speech when I said, “Bye for now, Ruth, I’ve got to run.”
No more to do
This past summer our congregation gathered to say goodbye to Dick. At his funeral, I told the story of that particular visit. His question, “Are you going to preach now?” drew some chuckles. We look forward to seeing him in heaven, free from the limitations imposed by his balky body.
Ruth is in her 101st year and still wrestling with the math. I visit her now without agenda, willing to lay aside my to-do list for an afternoon, and with the deep desire that our time together not be an item to check off. I still don’t enjoy the nursing home, and I dread the effects of aging, but I am learning more to trust God in these “unproductive” moments with friends.
Scott Penner is pastor of Truro Alliance Church in Truro, Nova Scotia.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.