“He sometimes cries like that, “the Activity Director said to me. “We are trying to talk him into coming here to live in the Assisted Living section. That way Ned will be close to her. We worry about him because he is home all alone and sometimes he forgets to eat. He comes every morning and stays all day. And he drives here; lives about seven miles away.”
Ned held on to his wife’s hand, hour after hour, in the dementia unit of a senior living home. She looked around, tried to stand up and he tugged her gently and said, “Nell, just sit down. Sit down, Darling.”
She moved over to the table where my props were and started moving them around. She was like a curious child whose parent needed to say, “Nell, don’t touch that. Leave it alone.”
She wandered over to another resident and touched her hair. He rubbed her back. Put his arm over hers. And kept holding her hand. And then put his arm around her with a little bit of a hug attached. Once, I saw her reach for his hand.
That’s when I realized what I just experienced. True love. Unconditional love. It didn’t matter if money was in short supply anymore. Or if a hot water pipe burst on Christmas morning. Time? There was plenty of that now. But the expression on his face now? What was it? Heartbroken.
She seemed lost and so did he. But found in a way, too. He found everything that he loved about her for the past six decades and as he looked at her face, the memories were not lost.
She wasn’t dressed fancy. Powder blue stretch pants and a pink ruffled blouse. No makeup. No jewelry. No elegant upsweep hairdo. He saw her as beautiful, inside and out.
I thought of one of my favorite children’s classic books – “The Velveteen Rabbit.” The wise Skin Horse knew the secret of true love. And so does Ned.
“When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to just play with, but really loves you, then you become Real. It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all.”
What was he thinking? What was she thinking?
Had she been in the choir? Was she the type that ran around dealing with all of the family problems? Was he picturing her in an apron looking out the ruffled kitchen curtains into their yard – to the clothes drying on the clothesline?
“Have you been married a while? I asked.
“Yes, she’s been my bride for sixty years.”
Maybe he was thinking about when they first got married. Was their apartment sparsely furnished? Did they watch Jack Benny when the black and white televisions appeared on the scene? Did they go on Saturday picnics?
Ned, how long has she been here?
I guess about two years now.
His eyes were watery. It seemed like he was on the verge of tears the whole two hours that I was there.
But not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone has love all around them. Mrs. Sonya has no one.
“My people all died so it is just me. My room-mate Cora died last Tuesday. I miss her so much. Neither of us could walk so we spent all day and all night talking in our beds and sitting in our wheelchairs. She didn’t have any people either. It is hard to get used to living somewhere. I have been here eight years and I am still not used to it.
You know that fuzzy puppy that you gave to her – Roger? She loved Roger because she had a dog before she came in here and it was named Roger. You have to give up everything when you move into a place like this.
I was a nurse. I am still registered down at City Hall. That’s the way it used to be – you had to be registered. I worked at PGH – that’s Philadelphia General Hospital. Remember the nurses’ caps we wore? Every hospital had different types. Mine had pleats at the top. (Please see front and back photo of 1950′s nurse’s cap. This is not Miss Sonya’s cap – just a picture of a similar one.)
See all of those stuffed animals? They are the ones you brought for me.”
My mother asked if Sonya wanted to sing some hymns. We did. About a verse or so of How Great Thou Art, Rock of Ages and Amazing Grace.
She cradled my mother’s hands. “Thanks so much for cheering me up. I don’t know what I am going to do without Cora. We were like sisters.”
“Are you going to go to Cora’s funeral service?”
“I would have to find someone to take me.”
And then we left carrying a picture of Cora……and hearing the sweet voice of Miss Sonya trailing after us, “Thanks so much for visiting me. I hope you can come back again soon. Don’t be a stranger, you hear me!”
I hated to leave her and the hundreds of other souls that do not have any visitors throughout the year. One activity director told me that 60 percent have no family or friends left. I wanted to say to Miss Sonya that better things were about to come into her life. But I couldn’t make that promise.
The only thing I could think of was my Operation Secret Santa for People in Nursing Homes. Last year, local folks collected hundreds of items that I delivered to the ladies in the nursing homes. Sometimes just the little things can brighten a person’s day.
So who stops at CVS to buy them a bottle of Jean Nate cologne, a pack of lifesavers or a new housecoat at Target? Common everyday things but of major importance. Who can they call when they are having a bad day? If you have no one left, there is no one left to help you in a pinch. No one……..
The folks at the nursing home gave me a gift – a treasure as a gift for Thanksgiving. For the simple things that I have now at age 61. I have my “people,” a clear mind, a best friend who is like a sister and my siblings, my mother and my whole family. I know it won’t always be that way but the lessons learned this week will be in my heart when that time comes.
Thank you Ned and Nell, Sonya and Cora Lee for telling me about the love and sweetness that lingers even when the person that you love is no longer “with you” in some way.
If you would like to help gather small items for OPERATION SECRET SANTA FOR PEOPLE IN NURSING HOMES: