The Book of Life

Working in a nursing home is both a curse and a blessing some times. Yesterday was a bit of an emotional roller coaster. One of my residents that I was very close with passed away. When I got to work one of my coworkers told me:
“M_____ is gone.”
I was confused at first, “Where’d she go?” and she simply lowered her eyes and pointed up towards the sky. It stunned me. I shot back and my hand flew to my chest. Almost like she had punched me. I couldn’t believe it.

You often hear a lot about Nursing Homes on the news. You hear about terrible stories about neglect and abuse. Those stories are very valid and can happen at any facility I’m sure. From 1 star to 5 star things will happen. Something that never makes the news is the amount of love that’s in a Nursing Home too. I can’t say it’s a giant building full of people that are as friendly as Mr. Rogers. Yet there are so many people who work there despite the awful hours and the terrible pay simply because they have the heart, patience, and endurance to care for these people like they were our own loved ones.

I try to learn every single resident by name. I think it’s a simple thing that means a lot when someone can address you by name, it’s just a simple way to say that you matter enough for me to know who you are. A lot of these people are lonely and don’t have visitors and some of them are beyond a handful too. You fall in love with them just like they are your own family members. When you spend half of your day with them feeding them, hugging them, talking to them, it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll get attached.

I have been working here for three years, and someone said to me that they were surprised I hadn’t gotten used to the fact that they will pass. I don’t care how long I work there, I will always mourn the loss of one of my residents. I look so forward to hearing them talk and laugh, to giving them their favorite foods, and getting to know their needs. It always hurts, and it always seems to hurt more when they were needier or drove you extra crazy. Those are the ones you miss the most because you interacted with them so much.

All day I kept thinking about her silly laugh and how she’d call me BIG MAN when she couldn’t remember my name. I will miss her.

Later that night when I did the smoke break after dinner (I don’t smoke, I just take the residents who smoke out on the patio and light cigarettes for them). It’s something I used to hate doing because I saw it as a waste of my time, and I don’t smoke so it seemed like a tedious task. It does however give me a half hour with some of these residents to talk and to get to know them a little better without having to run around and do a million things. I sit out on the patio with them and we all just soak up the evening sun.

I decided to make those 30 minutes as enjoyable as I can for them so I started bringing my little speaker out with me during the break, and I made a playlist of all kinds of songs that I think they would like. So far they love it and wish I could do every smoke break during the day because I guess it gets extremely quiet during the other smoke breaks. 15 or 20 people just sitting there fairly silently smoking and then going outside. When I take them out it’s like a 30 minute get together in the backyard.

I was talking to one of my residents, let’s just call him AJ. He was telling me all sorts of stories from his past. How he once had an affair with Nancy Sinatra, and how he had served in the Vietnam War. Told me all sorts of stories about that, and I thanked him for his service even though a lot of people in that time period thought lowly of the Vietnam War. I told him that something people fail to realize is you don’t have to be pro-war to appreciate what a soldier does. He selflessly endangered his life for the rest of his country, only to come home and be despised for fighting in a war that he had no say in whatsoever.

He thanked me whole heartedly and said that the hardest part of that war was the reactions when he got home. I assured him that for every one person that would taunt or spit on him there would always be 10 that thanked him and praised him for his service.

The rest of the residents had pretty much gone in at that point and it was just about time to head back in. He and I were the only two left on the patio. He apologized for wasting my time talking about his life.

I told him “No, that was not a waste of my time. That was a blessing. My grandmother’s class used to be visited by Mussolini when she was in school. She was directly connected to World War 2 and these are stories that I can never ask about because her dementia has gotten so bad that those stories are lost to time. Your stories are not lost and I will always want to hear them. Every person in this building has a story to tell and it’s a blessing to get to know anybody on that level. This building is filled with teachers, veterans, single moms, lawyers, and God knows what else…I’ve got 160-something blessings that I’ve got here and they each have a story to tell. I would be honored to hear them all because I tell you what….the stories you have told me will be around forever now. Thirty or forty years from now I will be talking about how I knew a man named AJ who used to date Nancy Sinatra…and the battles you fought for us.”

He started tearing up, his eyes watered and he removed his glasses to wipe the tears away.
“I’m sorry AJ, I didn’t mean to get you emotional…I ju-“
“No….it’s ok” he told me “It’s just that means a lot to me. I’ve got to tell you something…I’ve thought about…well. I don’t know how to say this. I’ve wanted to ‘Go To Sleep‘ if you know what I mean..more than once. I’ve thought about it a lot in life. I just felt like my story wasn’t done yet. I’ve been told I need to write a book…”

I nodded feverishly and said “Please do. I always used to tell my Grandmother the same thing. You know the secret? Everybody should write a book. We all have stories to tell because we’ve all been through so much. That’s life. Some of us have been through stuff we can all relate to and some of us have been through unique personal hells but we all have a story to tell. Not enough people take the time to stop and listen though. I’ll always be here to listen. I’m very young, only 30 but I’ve thought about Going to sleep too…many times. As nice as I am you wouldn’t believe the way some people have treated me. How some people have hurt me or talked to me. I keep going though. I’ve learned a valuable lesson. I’ve made it through 100% of the things that have happened to me in my life. 100%. That’s a perfect streak. Nothing has broken me yet…so I gotta keep the streak alive. When shit gets really hard I just remember I’ve got this streak. I’ve made it through 100% of all of it. You have too. Every loss, every pain, every fight you’ve made it 100%….keep the streak going.”

He had more tears and he started wiping them away, my voice had broke halfway through my rant and I had tears welling up too at that point. I joked that long after they stopped smoking the smoke must still be in our eyes and he laughed too as we both wiped tears away.

He thanked me and said that he was happy to have met me. I told him, “I’m sorry you have to spend your twilight years in a home, but I’m also grateful because it’s the only way our paths would have crossed…and having met you is another one of my blessings that I’m grateful for.”

We shook hands, wiped our eyes one last time and headed back inside. He went to his room and I went back to work and all I could think about was how my day had went.

I make a point, of letting my resident know how greatful I am for them regularly because I know that tomorrow is not promised. I can’t even count how many of my residents have passed in three years but a little bit of them will always live on in me because I knew them and I carry their stories.

I tell you this story for two reasons.

I think it is important to hear people. To listen to their stories. The legacy of a person is carried out in the minds and hearts of those who knew them. Someone is never really gone because the little stories and nuances continue on. Old Man Mick passed away 13 years ago and we still talk about him at every family get together, regaling in the funny or somber stories of old. He’ll never really be gone. I think it’s important to do that with as many people as possible because like I said, we all should be writing a book. We’ve all been through an incredible journey. I have talked to 15 year olds that could tell you stories that would make you sob and 90 year olds that have been through critical points of history. Every story matters.

I also tell you this story as a reminder, a reminder of the fact that life is short. That even 100 years can fly by in a flash when you think in terms of how long humans have walked the planet. 100 years is nothing…so cherish the time you have. Cherish the people you meet and DO NOT forget to remind them how important they are. Every person matters whether you like them or not, family or friend, foe or ally there’s a story to be told. The world is one giant library and all you have to do is invest the time to find the hidden gems on the shelves.

The idea of working or volunteering at a nursing home is often scary and intimidating but once you get past the scary facade it can be a life changing experience. If you have a lot of patience and love I highly recommend it. If you can’t, don’t want to, or are afraid to I still think it would behoove you to be more open to talking to people face to face. Getting to know someone on a different level.

Your homework for this post. Next time you’re talking to someone you don’t usually talk to, either a stranger or someone you don’t really know just ask them something like “What’s the craziest thing thing that’s ever happened to you?” or “What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you?” You’d be amazed at the entertaining stories that you’ll hear.

If you’d like to share your craziest or funniest story comment below and let me know a little bit more about you. Give me an excerpt from the book of your life.

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