Bobby had been a big man earlier in his life. He would still be a big man if he could get up from his special chair at the nursing home. An ex-marine, his eyes could be unfocused and blank or could give you a piercing look as if he was deciding whether or not to demand that you drop and give him 20 push-ups. Like with so many nursing home residents, some days were good while some could be really bad.
My visits with Bobby were the same. Some went pretty well, with him engaging in conversation (albeit somewhat confused). Others were difficult, with the conversation being decidedly one-sided on my part.
On this day, I saw Bobby sitting in the common area of the nursing home. Residents in wheelchairs lined the walls or were pushed up to tables as if waiting for whatever was going to masquerade as lunch today.
Bobby was at a table, looking around vaguely and showing no interest in anything. It looked like it was going to be one of the difficult days. Taking a breath and settling my messenger bag on the table, I looked at him.
“Hi, Bobby! How are you feeling today?”
Bobby didn’t answer. He barely looked at me. I persisted anyway.
“What’s going on with you today?”
Silence. Then as he looked around at the institutional walls and the residents sleeping in their wheelchairs he whispered, “I don’t belong here.”
“Tell me why you feel that way,” I said. Instead of answering, Bobby started talking about the days when he and his wife had organized four Bible schools for youth in Georgia and Alabama. They would drive long distances to make sure that the area kids had something positive to participate in and perhaps learn a little faith along the way.
As he spoke, his eyes got a faraway look - not like someone who has checked out but like a man who remembers when he was strong and when he could do something good for someone. The stories got mixed up as he talked. He couldn’t remember details. Still, he held on to what memories he had left as hard as he could.
Our conversation was kind of an organic thing. We moved from topic to topic as he wished. Bobby starting talking about his boyhood days and his siblings. He and I laughed together as he told me of how his sister had taken the training wheels off his bicycle, determined that he was going to ride on two wheels.
“Did you fall?” I asked. “Oh yeah, I fell,” he smiled. “But I learned how to ride.”
Bobby and I swapped bicycle stories for a while and laughed a little bit more. He talked of his parents and other relatives. Finally it was time for me to move on.
“Can I say a prayer for you?” I asked. Bobby nodded and reached out to take my hand with a hand that was half again as large as mine. After the prayer, I began saying goodbye and got up to leave.
“You must have a gift,” Bobby said, glancing up at me.
“What do you mean?” I replied, looking at him with a puzzled expression. I felt that I had done very little for him that day and I certainly did not feel like I had exercised any special gift.
“You must have a gift to pull those stories out of me,” Bobby said as his eyes shown with tears.
“You gave me the gift,” I said. I thanked him for telling me the stories that were so special to him. Bobby just nodded. I felt truly small and undeserving of the complement. The truth is, I didn’t pull any stories out of Bobby. All I did was sit down to listen.
I wondered then as I left and I wonder on most days if anyone else is listening to Bobby. Or to anyone else.