This post was originally published in New Friends Visits, a blog about my experiences of visiting with people living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
It was not a typical Sunday. Most residents at Cedarhurst usually retreat to their rooms after lunch, keeping things pretty mellow. This afternoon was different. Two celebrations were underway. The staff had organized a football party for residents and their guests. And, Marion’s family had gathered to celebrate the commencement of her tenth decade. Both events were in full swing as I made my way around the room, socializing and serving refreshments. It didn’t take long to notice that two of my friends were not in attendance.
“Hello, Darlin!” Jackson recognized me immediately when I appeared in his doorway. “Come on in,” he invited. Although none of the residents at the dementia care residency call me by name, they seem keenly aware of our friendship.
I stepped inside. “Hey Jackson, why aren’t you at the party?” Cocking my head and placing my hands on my hips, I feigned surprise at his absence. The truth was, I expected it. Jackson tends to hole up in his room.
“There’s a party?” he inquired. “What kind of party?”
Although I was sure he received a personal invitation from the staff, I continued to play along. “It’s a football party. Come on!” I motioned toward the door.
“Football, huh?” He looked up at me with a mischievous grin and blue eyes clear with intention. He motioned me closer. “Are they placing bets?” he whispered as I drew near.
I should have known that was coming. Jackson often reminisces about his gambling days, which he claims were quite profitable. “No. No gambling. But, the game is on. And there is food. Come on!” I encouraged. He hesitated, reached for his walker, and shuffled toward the door.
Sensing his disappointment, I changed the subject. “So where is Rose? I haven’t seen her around.”
Steadfast chums, Rose and Jackson are a most unlikely pair. Both are from the Deep South and “fixin” to get back home. But, that is about all they have in common. With drinking and gambling as his favorite pastimes’, Jackson has led a very colorful life. Rose, on the other hand, is very religious. More certain of her faith than anyone I ever met, Rose belongs to a strict denomination that forbids such activities.
“Rose?” Jackson responded, his voice lifting. “I think she went on home to Alabama.” Rather than being sad about her departure, Jackson seemed genuinely happy for her. Perhaps her dream realized gave him a sense of hope.
After helping Jackson join the festivities, I rapped gently on Rose’s door. While the entrances to most rooms were decorated with a seasonal craft project or the artwork of a grandchild, Rose’s door was bare. For reasons I’m just beginning to understand, she prefers it that way. In any respect, I concluded she was either in her room, at church, or had died. (Yes, the thought crossed my mind.) Whatever the case, I knew she was not in Alabama.
“Well, hello there!” Smoothing the front of her favorite paisley dress, Rose greeted me enthusiastically. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Despite her age, Rose has the demeanor of an eleven-year-old schoolgirl. She is always tidy in appearance and polished in mannerism. At the same time, she seems ready to burst. It’s as if she has a juicy secret that she can no longer hold in. On occasion, a curl will spring free from her tightly pinned tresses. She simply brushes it aside and smiles sweetly with her large brown eyes.
Rose hurried me inside and promptly closed the door behind us. Her secrecy used to make me uncomfortable. But, I’ve come to understand that it is simply a natural response to living in a communal environment. Although I realized she was probably not in the mood for group socialization, I extended the invitation anyway.
“A party? Heavens, no. I don’t go to parties.” Rose looked stunned — as if I had just asked her to swap her Bible for a copy of Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason.” But, she did not chastise my sinful ways. Nor did she allow me to stew in even one second of awkward pause. Instead, Rose patted her bed. “Come! Sit with me. Let’s visit a spell.”
“Sure, I’d love to,” I replied. “But, first, can I bring you a piece of cake?” I tripped over my words. “It’s birthday cake. From the party. Do you eat party cake?” I don’t know why I couldn’t let go of the party thing and was thankful when she accepted.
Minutes later, the two of us sat on the edge of her bed. On our laps, we balanced flimsy plates that were heavy with thick slabs of cake. I asked Rose what she had been up to. She reached for a small digest on her pillow. “Reading,” she responded, handing me a religious magazine. “They are good, clean stories,” she continued. “That’s all I read. Good, clean stories.” She emphasized “clean.”
We talked for a bit about the story she was reading. But, mostly, Rose was interested in reminding me that she had found God. (We’ve had this discussion before.) And, what a good, generous God he was. It was the kind of thing one might hear from a sidewalk preacher. There wasn’t much depth to the sermon, but it was bursting with emotion. Obviously important to Rose, I listened intently. Then, taking my hands in hers, Rose used them to close the book. “Take it,” she said. “You’ll enjoy it. They’re good, clean stories.”
I knew this was Rose’s way of thanking me. She appreciated the visit. But, even more so, she was grateful that I accepted her. I didn’t try to change her mind about parties. I didn’t ask her why God was cool with eating party cake, but not attending the party. And, my eyes didn’t glaze over with the countless renditions of “Praise the Lord.”
The truth was, Rose inspired me. She found something that eludes the masses. She is comfortable with herself. In fact, Rose is so secure in who she is that she didn’t even feel the need to change me. I have nothing but respect for a faith of that magnitude.
About a month later, it was party time again. The staff had organized a New Year’s Eve celebration for family and friends. This time, however, I didn’t have to seek out Rose and Jackson. They were sitting together at the table, enjoying appetizers and eggnog when I arrived. They were even wearing pointed party hats! (Yes, Rose, too.) I couldn’t help but smile.
After exchanging holiday greetings, I scooted in next to Rose. She had that “I have a secret” look about her. Leaning towards me, Rose whispered excitedly, “Jackson and I got married.”
The whole scene caught me completely off-guard. But, I was getting used to my friends’ surprises. I gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Congratulations, Rose. That’s wonderful!” Then, I glanced at Jackson. He was curiously examining the Swedish meatball stuck to the end of his fork. I wondered if he heard the news.
Nodding toward Jackson, I told Rose lightheartedly, “Now you’re gonna have to get that new husband of yours to church!”
“No,” Rose responded, “I don’t need to do that.” Her face was serene. “That is between him and the Lord.”
What Rose Taught Me:
“You complete me.” I always hated that movie line. It represents the romanticized version of codependency. “Dysfunction junction” is what my mom would have called it. The idea is that in order for one to feel fulfilled, he or she needs another person to be a certain way. Yet, as difficult as it is to admit, most of us practice this tendency to some degree — myself included. Why do we do this?
I think part of the reason is that we believe what we hear. We invest in the steady stream of fiction we are fed — contentment is just around the corner. All we have to do is acquire what we are lacking. We just need the perfect partner, career, house, kids, health, clothes, religion, entertainment center, etc. The list never ends. Then, all of that junk thought piles up and suffocates the one thing that we really do need — faith in ourselves.
Deep down, we all know this. But, it’s easier to blame something beyond our control than it is to take responsibility for our own growth and healing. And so the cycle continues. We feel bad about ourselves so we judge others, which only increases everyone’s feelings of inadequacy.
I don’t know when Rose mastered the art of self-love. Perhaps she learned this early on. However, as it is for most of us, I have a hunch that it has been a life-long journey. In fact, I’d be willing to bet (don’t tell Jackson) that her proficiency was achieved after she started experiencing symptoms of dementia. Maybe then she was forced to strip away the distractions — the piles of junk thought. However it happened, Rose has acquired something very special and rare — faith in her self. In that, she is free to give the greatest gift of all — acceptance of others.