The nursing home was the same as it was last week and the week before. After getting buzzed in, I walked through the small lobby/common area, waving a greeting to the few wheelchair-bound residents that were present. As usual, a few responded. Others didn’t.
Nursing homes are among the saddest places I have ever known. Some people are there because family members are unable to give the kind of care needed. Others are there because family members are too busy with their own concerns to give the kind of care needed. Overworked employees move up and down the halls and back and forth between rooms. They give medication, mop floors and change bedding. Many do so with an air of detachment, as if they are moving through their day by rote.
This visit was going to be different than the one last week. Luewill, the patient I had been visiting for the past year, was declining rapidly. I walked through the hallway, the sights, sounds and scents familiar and unpleasant. You get used to it, but you never become comfortable with it.
I walked into the room Luewill shared with another resident. One look told me that it would be over in a matter of hours. I spoke to her as usual. There was no response, nor did I expect one. Still, I wanted her to hear at least a few words of care and support. I didn’t need to get an affirmation. It’s never been about me. It’s always been about what she might have heard and understood.
Many times on previous visits, I was unsure if Luewill understood what I was saying. I often asked, “Is there anything in the Bible you’d like to hear?” Invariably she would respond, “The Lord is my shepherd!” She might not have understood everything, but she knew what she needed to hear. We ended every visit with the comforting words of the 23rd Psalm. Sometimes she would make a sound to affirm my reading as I paused between phrases, as if she were still sitting in the church pew she used to occupy regularly before the cancer took over her life. Once, she tried to repeat the lines back to me. It may seem unproductive to some, to be reading the same passage each visit. To her, it was a reminder that even in this place God a quiet, eternal presence.
Today, I said a prayer over Luewill and stood silently for a moment. I began to hear her roommate speaking loudly. Very loudly. That was nothing new. The roomie was always loud. She loved to sing at the top of her lungs. All the time. Scraps of hymns, children’s songs and some things unidentifiable – they all were sung as if we were an audience at a Broadway theater and she the diva of center stage.
This time was different. As I paid closer attention, I heard her saying firmly, “Me! Me! Me!” I looked over at her, a tiny, white-haired woman in a reclined wheelchair. She was looking directly at me, motioning toward her chest with her open hand, saying “Me, Me!” over and over again. I moved over to her and our eyes met. “I hear you,” I said, holding her gaze. She paused. “I hear you,” I said again. She smiled a little. “What’s your name,” I asked her. “Jill!” she said enthusiastically, and offered her hand. We shook hands and I told her that I was pleased to meet her. “Pleased to meet you too, she said.”
Jill has dementia. She doesn’t always understand what people are trying to say. People don’t always understand what Jill is trying to communicate. She seems to be in a world of her own making, singing songs and shouting like she’s in the middle of a tent revival.
Today, something happened. Dementia opened a window and Jill looked out. We talked of how she loved singing in church. “I’m Presbyterian,” she said, smiling. “They’re good people.” I smiled back. “I know,” I said.
Too quickly, dementia closed Jill’s window to the world and she became difficult to understand. Closing our conversation, I said that I hoped that she would have a good day. For just an instant, Jill was at the window again. “You too,” she said. Then she was gone.
I don’t know how many times a day or week Jill is able to peer through the distorted windows of her dementia. I have no idea how often she is able to summon the strength to tell someone “I’m still here! I may not seem like it, but I’m here! I need to know that you see me, that you hear me! Please tell that you do!”
I moved back to Luewill’s bedside. Leaning over her, I quietly recited the 23rd Psalm one last time and left. I thought about it during the drive back to the office. Something holy had happened in that nursing home room. One person was in the slow process of leaving this world. She had been here and now was going away. Another person had been away and, for a few blessed minutes, was back. In one indescribable moment, all three of us were on the same holy ground.
I blinked back tears as I drove. I was sorry for Luewill, but was glad that she would soon be free of pain and fear. I was sorry for Jill, but was awed by the strength it took to force open a window and shout to be heard – to be noticed.
I suppose we are all the same. Deep inside, we all struggle to conquer pain and fear. There are times we all want to shout to the world or to even one person, “I’m here! I’m alive! I’m a person! Do you see me? Me! Me!”
Please, God, let there be someone at the window.