I was at the corner coffee shop yesterday when I ran into a man who I have seen over the last few years at a certain nursing home “down the hill.” I’d never really talked to him though he’d been a constant presence at dinner-time helping his wife while I was sitting with other patients in the same dining room.
As he was getting into his car, I asked him how his wife was. He said, “If you asked her she’d say she was getting better every day.” He smiled an ironic little smile, something between pride and exasperation.
We talked further in the parking lot and I gained insight into this couple I’d seen so often and wondered about. She had been diagnosed with metastatic brain cancer five years earlier and given five months to live. She paid as much attention to the prognosis as she would an inconsequential insect and went on with life.
Five years later her husband was still coming to see her daily. Certainly not because she’s beautiful anymore or pleasant to be around. She’s crabby and looks like a turnip but he clearly adores her.
He’s lucky enough to know what love is. Not the easy thing that we have sentimentalized. Not the romanticized thing western culture idolizes, but the faithful, enduring thing that ennobles both giver and receiver.
As he spoke of his wife and their difficult journey together over the recent years, this small man gained stature before my eyes until I felt inconsequential beside this small giant of a human being. He is one of very few I have encountered who do not abandon their loved ones after they go into a nursing home.
In every nursing home, there are a handful of family members: sons, daughters, spouses who come diligently to care for their own. But for the large part, most of the residents of those lonely places have no one who comes to see them on a regular basis. Some never see anyone at all—even when they are dying.
Especially when they are dying.
Among those few family members who do come, the ones who come daily are nothing short of heroic. I think often of my many years working at a nursing home and the only son who came daily to see his dad. His name was Gary and I will never forget him.
He was a plain-spoken, quiet man. Earthy with a tanned and open face, he had big rough hands like a carpenter or farmer. I could see him up on a tractor or whispering to horses. I heard he had lots of children and was a devoted father.
His own father, stricken with fairly advanced Alzheimer’s, had been a man’s man, too—a contractor. Successful and used to being in charge, the disease had rendered him belligerent and on occasion violent with his caregivers.
No one could calm him like his son, Gary. He’d take his dad by the hand and walk with him until he settled down. He sat through most every lunch and dinnertime feeding him, wiping his chin, day after day, year after year. I marveled at his consistency, his endurance.
Faithfulness and self-sacrificing love—our aging mothers, fathers, spouses, and elders deserve nothing less.
Not only will they be lost if we refuse to give it; we will be tragically diminished as well.