Friday, April 5, 2013

What I learned about marriage from two nursing home residents

Working at a nursing home, I met a married couple that really defined for me what marriage means.

He was wheelchair bound. He had had a stroke and lost all movement in his right leg and arm. He was still alert though. He'd tease the staff and tell us all sorts of stories. He'd rant about how "young people just don't respect their elders anymore" and "young people today don't know what it means to work hard."

She was an Alzheimer's victim. Physically, she could do anything I could do. She walked, she ran, she could maneuver around obstacles. Mentally, she was a different story. She could only follow the simplest instructions and only then when you held her hand, guiding her through it. Once in a blue moon, we'd hear her say "yes" or "no" and sometimes she'd laugh, but she mostly just stared silently off into space.

Together, they were actually pretty independent. He'd be her voice and she'd be his body. She always pushed his wheelchair to meals and activities. He'd instruct her on where to go. She could also do simple things around the room to help him or to help us help him. He'd push the call button for her when it seemed as if she needed something. He'd answer questions for her based on what he knew about her from so many years of marriage. He'd look out for her and make sure she was treated right.

I was there when he died. I remember how lost she was those first few weeks. She was thrown off by our moving around the furniture to make room for a new resident. Her routine was completely changed around. I think in her own way, somewhere inside her, she knew he was dead. There's no doubt in my mind though, that things would have been worse if she had died first. Much, much worse. They meant the world to each other, but he was still mentally aware enough to really know what that meant.

They really defined for me "for better or for worse." They completed each other and helped one another the best they could. In the home, they put each other first. His patience with her and complete devotion to her was inspiring. As much as I hope my husband and I don't fall apart like they did (although God knows we probably will), I hope we do have that kind of care and adoration for each other until the very end.

I don't have a picture of them, so I guess this will have to do.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

"Don't Quit!"

"When you're born, you don't really know what you're getting into," a resident of mine observed. "I'm not sure how I would have reacted if I had known I would be a 98-year-old old maid in a nursing home."

I knew what she meant. "Yeah," I said, "If I had known what I was getting into, I would have quit then and there."

"Don't quit!" Eula suddenly responded, "If you quit, who will help me get into bed?"

Somehow those unexpected words--spoken in a state of mild confusion--cut me to the quick.

You see, my life has been at a stand-still. I was working as a certified nursing assistant while I wait to return to study theology at a new school this fall. I'm responsible for the day-to-day needs of the residents at a nursing home, assisting them with their daily tasks such as bathing, eating, getting dressed and so on.

Some days I really hate my job. To make the time go by more quickly, I try to keep myself busy. I'm working on losing weight and getting a driver's license, for instance.

Still I can't help at times but wonder why God has put this period in my life. What fruit am I producing? What good am I doing? Why am I stuck here?

I didn't expect God to speak through a tiny, 98-year-old woman (although since most of my current social contact is with elderly women, what medium did I expect him to use?).

Anyway, her words--"If you quit, who will help me?"--gave me pause. I had just been going through the motions, making sure all 40 of my residents' needs were met, making sure all of them were in bed before night shift arrived.

Suddenly I thought of the baby Jesus in the manger, all the visions of all the great religions' prophets, the enlightenment of the Enlightened ones. And then I was reminded that God speaks when and where it is least expected.

[Originally published "God Speaks to Me in Unexpected Ways" in August 2008 in the Kansas City Star under my maiden name, Bethanie Seiglar. The resident quoted in this piece, Eula Hawkins, died August 25,2011 at the age of 100.]

Picture taken at her 100th birthday party. Rest in peace, Eula!