I’ve been serving as an elder on our church Session for almost a year and a half. I’m halfway through my commitment. There are a variety of responsibilities but the one that makes me most uncomfortable comes only once a year. It’s when, during the month that you are the Elder on Call, you accompany the pastor when he takes Communion to the shut-ins.
I’ve done this twice now. There are several things that make me uncomfortable about the process. I am not a patient person. Not in the least. And to interact with the old and frail, you have to have patience. They will move slow. They may talk slow, both in the general mechanics of speaking and in how long they take to get to their point. And you have to slow down too or they either won’t hear you or won’t track what you are saying. This is excruciating for impatient people. For busy, fast-moving people.
I’m not alone. Many people are uncomfortable in nursing homes and other places where we come face to face with mortality. But I’ve never liked this aspect of myself. I know that these people who look like shells are real people with real histories and real feelings and I don’t want to be uncomfortable around them. But wanting something is not the same thing as being something. Sometimes the process is gradual.
When we visited a nursing home last year, we visited a lady that was well-known in the church but not to me, a relative newcomer. I had never known her during her more vital days. I had nothing to pull from. She was so tiny, so incredibly tiny. A pad on her bed needed to be changed, leaving the room with a distinctive odor. She kind of curled in on herself.
And she had the most beautiful painted fingernails that I had ever seen. And she talked fervently to the pastor about her hope to return to church very soon. She spoke in plural, referring, presumably, to her recently deceased husband. Her body had wasted away and her mind wasn’t too far behind, but her fingernails mesmerized me. Someone knew who she really was. Someone loved her and remembered her when and knew that she would enjoy her nails painted.
When we left her room, a line of people sat in wheelchairs. Just sitting there, staring forward. Not talking to each other, not looking around, just sitting and waiting. Between what I had just seen and the folks immobile in their chairs, I felt desperate and trapped. I wanted to get out of there quickly.
Fast forward to this month. It was again my turn to travel with the pastor. We first visited a couple, of which the husband was recovering but the wife was still quite healthy and active. And talkative. She talked on and on and on about the things happening in her world, about her husband, about church. She eagerly asked questions and then talked some more. When her husband mumbled something, she knew exactly what he was saying, responded, and moved on with her tale. There was no ending in sight and, unlike the gross stereotype on speed I gave above, it was rapid fire.
And I loved every minute of it. I didn’t feel trapped. I wanted to hear what she had to say. I wasn’t in a hurry to go anywhere, even though I did actually have places I needed to go.
We left there and visited a woman who had recently been put on hospice care. We talked with her children for awhile and it was a lot like being at the previous woman’s house. It was obvious they just needed to talk. They just needed someone to listen. To hear and acknowledge what they had been going through as caregivers. To hear about their mother’s last days. To affirm the worth of it all.
And then we went to see the woman. She was tiny and frail. She weighed so little that she was sitting against pillows and not knocking the pillows down. She wasn’t wearing her hearing aids so we had to sit close and talk clearly.
The pastor introduced me and she said, “I know you. I’ve seen you in the church. I never introduced myself but I know who you are.” We soon learned that we shared a birthday. My birthday mate, the pastor, and I talked amiably for awhile. I enjoyed her company. I enjoyed her family.
It was my responsibility to give the prayer and so I did. As we turned to leave, she took my hand. She held it and told me to enjoy our next birthday, that she probably wouldn’t be around to see it. I was touched. I liked her. This wasn’t the simple “isn’t she sweet” reaction to an older person, I genuinely liked her.
I thought about sending her a card, letting her know how much I appreciated our visit. I thought about calling to see if I could stop back by. But it was a busy week, as so many of them are. Six days later, she had a stroke and it’s now only a matter of time before she leaves this world. I lost my opportunity to touch base with her again, but I haven’t lost that feeling that I’m growing up some more. Becoming comfortable where I previously wasn’t. Becoming the person I want to be.
So here we are, just a week after my visit with her. I’ve been thinking about that day a lot and I’ve been feeling the effect it’s had on me. During our Session meeting last night, one of the oldest Elders was to give the testimony. He had asked permission to go “off script” and began to tell his story, instead of answering the standard questions.
His story started when he was 6 months old. It was pretty clear that this was going to go beyond the usual time allotment for the testimony. I should have been impatient. I should have been rolling my internal eyes. Instead, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. I hung on every word. And I realized as I sat there, that he could talk on forever and I would sit and listen.
I wanted to hear his story and I didn’t care how long it took. It was an emotional and fascinating look at his brushes with death over the years, starting with having Diphtheria as an infant. A disease children don’t get anymore because of vaccinations, I thought to myself.
I wanted to hear his perspective. I wanted to drink in his history. I wanted to get to know him and love him and respect where he’s been and where he’s going. I wanted a piece of him, the real him. Not the simple caricature I had created of him in my foolish mind.
I think I’ve grown up a lot in this past week. I hope it sticks.