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When I was 14 years old, the summer after the 8th grade, my Dad told me that I needed to get out of my head, and he sent me to Friendship Manor, the nursing home, to volunteer for the summer. At that point, my parents didn’t know that I’d been depressed enough to make one small, feeble suicide attempt. My despair and ennui at that time weren’t sufficient to overcome my aversion to pain, so the slim cut across my wrist that I’d made with the razor blade didn’t draw anyone’s attention. It didn’t even leave a scar… but I knew, and I had come to be very frightened of the power of my own depression. So, I decided that my Dad was probably right. If I spent the entire summer indoors, as was my usual routine, I literally wasn’t sure I’d make it through alive.
For a depressed teenager, the thought of spending a summer working in a nursing home was excellent fodder for self-pity. I really enjoyed self-pity at that point, so I found a kind of reward in that as I trudged the half-hour to the nursing home. When I met with my supervisor, Loretta, I expected her to assign me to empty bedpans, or take out trash, perhaps wheel residents around in the hallways to look out windows onto views of parking lots or something like that. Perfect.
However, Loretta did something very different. I will never know why she entrusted this task to me, but she gave me the job of talking to new residents, and of making notes on any deterioration in their mood or mental state so that she could be aware of issues with adjustment to the nursing home and attend to problem cases. In other words, she gave me the job of listening to their stories, and of documenting what I heard. She couldn’t have picked a better job for me, a person who spent most of my spare time scrawling self-pitying poetry and songs into notebooks with worn edges and notepads advertising various industrial fastener and truck-driving companies for which my father had worked. If I knew anything, I knew about moods, and I knew how to write.
At first, I felt angry and even more depressed, walking into the rooms of complete strangers and trying to explain that I’d been sent there to see how they were doing. It was awkward, to say the least, although it suited my sense of irony, and served as confirmation that I was the Weirdest Adolescent in History. For their part, many of the residents didn’t seem to have much of a problem opening up to a 14 year old. If they did, I just thanked them and walked away, relieved not to have to listen to the tales of families that ignored them, of skin rashes and back pains and loneliness.
But I changed. I went to the nursing home three days a week, and Loretta set up a rotation of folks I was supposed to go and see according to their level of need. This meant that I was seeing some people almost every time I went there. I’ve forgotten most of their names, but I can still see their faces –
Mabel Cobb, the toothless, muppet-faced woman who sometimes smiled and sometimes cried when talking of her family --whose visits she forgot as soon as they left-- whose mood swings I found oddly comforting as depressed me tried to comfort her;
the 40-something woman with stumps for legs because of diabetes gone completely out of control, whose catheter bag smelled, but who was always polite to me, and talked as much as her energy would allow;
the steely-grey haired woman with the screaming roommate, who started out bright and sociable and deteriorated noticeably, about whom I wrote lengthy case notes for Loretta, practically begging her to move the woman out of that room;
the wheelchair bound African-American grandmother, whose half a room was a beautiful sanctuary covered with pictures of her family, who glowed with her peace, and who loved Jesus so strongly that I wondered if I could properly call myself a Christian.
But the one who impacted me the most was Hester. Hester was a gorgeous woman in her late 70s, with beautiful, shiny snow-white hair that framed her head like a crown; deep, Hershey-colored, brown eyes; and high, elegant cheekbones. Hester had had a stroke that left her incapable of movement on her left side, and was also totally incapable of speech. She lay almost entirely motionless in her bed, the frustration and intelligence shining out of her eyes. It was her eyes that grabbed me. Most of the residents had a slightly glazed expression that belied resignation to their state. Hester was probably the most helpless of any of the residents I saw, but when I looked into her eyes I saw a bright, powerful woman who was jailed within her own body, and not resigned to it in the least.
I truly looked forward to seeing her, so I went and saw her every time I was at the nursing home, whether Loretta told me to or not. As time passed, she also became visibly glad to see me. Her eyes brightened, and she grasped my hand tightly with her one good hand. I was really struck by both her beauty and her need to connect, to communicate and respond as much as her body would allow. She struggled so hard to talk to me, gumming incoherent syllables in a deep, throaty voice, aware that she wasn’t making much sense –so frustrated—and yet trying always. I listened, I nodded, I said “mm-hmm” a lot, and I tried to understand, narrating back what sounded like it was sort of speech, responding to her facial expressions, her occasional gestures with her good hand, and stroking her hand and her arm and eventually her gorgeous hair when she finally gave up and collapsed back into the pillow, tears of frustration gathering around the corners of her eyes.
One day, I walked into the room and greeted her, and she looked up, gathered her strength, and said “Amy” in a deep, tired voice. I looked up at her brother-in-law, Jim, who was visiting her, startled. “Did she just say my name??” I said. “Yes, she did!” he responded brightly, with a smile. I praised her, hugged her as best I could, and stared down at her, wondering how long she’d had to struggle in speech therapy to be able to form those two syllables. She smiled at me, and relaxed back into her pillow, tired from the effort and relieved that finally she had made some sense.
It suddenly hit me that I really meant something to her. It was a shock that yanked me out of myself, how the very small thing I was doing every day was so important to her, was love in a way, and that she was returning love. I can honestly say that I have been given very few gifts that required as much of a person as what Hester did in teaching her lips and tongue to say my name.
There is so much power in listening to, and just as much in telling, the stories that we have in our lives. In our consumer society, we are obsessed with the experts, the celebrities, the “successful” among us. We spend hours watching television and reading books and magazines that narrate the stories of those we will never meet, envying their lives, feeling ourselves pathetic in comparison. We have become immune to one another’s stories, forgetting the power of the experiences of those within our own community.
This is one of our hugest sicknesses: we have forgotten to value one another, to value the community among us, to hear each other, to understand that we are all “experts” in our personal experiences, in what lessons life has taught each of us. Television and print media have led us to believe that the shiny product marketed to us by the media conglomerates represents what we as a people experience and believe. But it’s not us. It really isn’t.
Us is what is in the room around us. Us is what happens between people daily. Us is the story of our common life, and it is more important than any fame that may happen as a result of anything we do.
Art is one way that we tell our common story, and this too is threatened by the consumer society. In this society, artists are taught that they should want to be famous. We feel we can’t survive without it. We feel that if our story, or our song or our painting don’t receive wide acclaim, then we are pointless. But art is communication… all art, (and story-telling is also an art) is meant to communicate something very important in a way that regular conversation just doesn’t, something we’d miss in the day to day grind if we didn’t listen to it in just this way.
Art, I have discovered, is best experienced in community. When you share what you have with people who have the context to understand what this is requiring of you, what you are giving in creating and communicating in this way, it makes it so much deeper for all involved. I think artists are actually meant to produce art for our own local community. Fame, if it comes, has some merits, mostly financial, but that’s never the point. If it becomes the point then we end up exalting really crappy art (I'm thinking of pop music and paperback novels here), and we become cynical about ourselves, about what we have to contribute. It all becomes a marketing game… and why should I even bother, I’ll never be as famous as (insert famous name here).
…which brings me back to my story. Hester died many years ago, but I will never forget her. I will never forget what that summer in the nursing home taught me about the value of simple presence in the life of another, the power of listening even when that person doesn’t make sense, the power of recognizing someone who is struggling deeply. I will never, ever, ever forget the gift of hearing my name spoken by a woman who had lost the ability to speak.
So I have an obligation now, the obligation to tell the story of what it means to be simply present to one another, to not to forget those who are suffering, to listen. Listening to Hester also means telling her story to those around me, telling the story of how I came out of that summer changed, pulled out of myself, and how I began to fight my depression, in part inspired by her. I never tried to kill myself again. I won’t say I never thought of it again, but I never tried. Witnessing the fight inside a woman who couldn’t move or walk or speak made my two legs, my voice, my mobility a precious gift not meant to be squandered.
But more than that, being recognized by her gave me, my very presence, value.
Share your story. We are meant to be blessings to one another, and to bear witness to the value of our common life. Listen to the stories of those around you, listen to the lessons that we all have for one another. Do not forget that every single one of us is precious, and that nothing we experience is without meaning. Don’t think that refusing to share your story is humility. It isn’t. It’s selfishness, a refusal to be open to others, a refusal to admit that we are connected to and truly need one another.