One of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in Los Angeles was bittersweet. And a lifelong lesson as well. Are you ready to take a little journey back in time with me? It’s a bit of a long trek but a worthy one, I promise.
Right around ’94 or ’95, I was going through a spiritual workout. I wanted to prove to myself that my faith was sincere and was built on a firm foundation. I didn’t want to simply go through a phase and later move on to other things. I wanted to find what I was looking for right there and then, really find it, be home and settle down for good. I didn’t want to simply get lost in a church crowd, to be a co-participant in ministry events. That was easy to do. You’re encouraged. You sign up. You all do it together. Job’s done. That was a given. It was a bare minimum. But back then, I wanted to practice true religion on an individual basis. I wanted to mean what I say. And I wanted to learn.
To learn the truth about giving.
I did a lot of things but one of the two activities (yes, there’s a part 3 yet in the near future) that stood out for me was my weekly routine of visiting the elderly at a nearby nursing home. It was a ten minute drive from my place and I used to go every Tuesday and Thursday evenings. I must’ve done it for at least two years straight. Every now and then, I’d bring an interested friend with me but for the most part, I went by myself.
In this home, when you step inside the lobby, the hallway circles around the entire building. You start walking to your right. You just follow the hallway and you eventually come out of the left wing back into the lobby. Now, it takes a good couple of hours to go into each room and spend time with every single person in there. Well, at least, with the ones you can actually talk to sensibly. Sadly, some of them aren’t functioning properly anymore, if you know what I mean. Anyhow, most of these folks are different in more ways than one. Different in age, gender, race, mental and health status. So you treated each of them differently. Some will talk to you and express gratitude. Some are annoyed that you’re there. The first few visits, I remember just trying to get a good feel of each person. I thought… Who could I give just a smile to? Who could I actually say hello to? Who will want to get a little more involved and carry a conversation with me? And finally, who will crave a lasting friendship?
I could fill in the blanks for each of those categories with names. Amazingly, I remember a lot of them idividually. There was Eddie. A wheelchair-bound, 70-ish man who bawled and wailed everytime I stoop down to his eye-level to chat with him. Even more, I distinctively remember Evelyn, an 88 year old lady who patiently waited for me to come by twice a week after work. Now she came to be a real friend eventually. She knew I was going to be in time for dinner just so I can spoon-feed her. I wasn’t clear as to why the workers in the home didn’t do anything knowing she had a hard time feeding herself. Her arm shakes too much that by the time the spoon reaches her mouth, the food’s everywhere but on the spoon. She confides with me. She’s hungry all the time because she barely gets to eat her food. I ask how come they don’t help her. She said, she doesn’t know either. She could hardly speak, much less explain herself effectively enough to convince the staff to help her with her difficulties.
And so, this is what I did for the next year or so. I circled the hallway. I waved a smile to some. Said hello to a few more. Striked a quick conversation with others. And then, I spent the rest of my time with Evelyn. I fed her, spoke to her a bit, waited until she fell asleep. And then, I went home.
One day I came and did my routine, went to Evelyn’s room and found her bed made but empty.
“She passed yesterday.” The nurse informed me.
To say that it hurt is a big understatement. I did not expect this at any moment. I thought I will have moved out of town before anything remotely close to this would every happen. I was in complete shock. It was certainly a death in the family. It was the first time I felt I was given pain by something that I thought could never do such a thing.
How could you? I took care of you. I gave a portion of my life to you. And this is the thanks I get?
But I was too shocked. Too numb to feel the anger. And I was not about to learn my lesson yet. Not until way later.
To go back into that building was too much for me to handle at this point. I felt like moving on, one way or another. One day, I noticed for the first time that the building across the street was actually another nursing home. I’m not sure why I didn’t notice it before. Could it be that all I ever noticed in that street was the old beloved nursing home I go to week after week. To be honest, I don’t remember what else was in that neighborhood. Everything was vague. Except for my sole purpose.
Eventually, I was able to muster up enough strength to walk through the doors of the building across the street. Here I am. About to warm up a new bench again, so to speak. New folks, new faces, new acquaintances. And hopefully, new friends.
In this building I had a lot more fun actually. The people were more upbeat and wanting to be funny with you. There was this room that had about 10 beds. I did my rounds one day, walked in the room and told some jokes. Back then my hair was long. The folks in that particular room, for some reason, have bad eyesight, I reckon. I found this out later when one lady asked if I had a boyfriend (long hair could be troublesome at times). In my shock, I spoke a bit loudly and exclaimed with sheer dignity…”Oh no, I’m a guy!”
The next two to three seconds after that moment was a sight to behold. All ten women, of which most appeared to be in a slumber, all of a sudden got up, with eyes wide open and staring at me, altogether controverted… “YOU’RE A BOY?? LIAR!!!”
I could only wish though, that every room in that home was as lively as that one. But it wasn’t the case at all. There were folks in there who were too bitter, too unpleasant to talk to, in a way. However, there was this one room. It had maybe four beds in it. But there were only two occupants at the time. One of them seems to be passed out all day everyday so you couldn’t even say hello. The other was a woman I eventually came to know as Jean.
Now, Jean was funny. In a bittersweet kind of funny, that is. She was only in her early 60’s, I think. But she was struck by some kind of sickness that made her seem like a weak person in her 90’s. And like Evelyn, she also came to expect a visit from me on a regular basis. And this, only because she insisted.
“Kish, I want you to come back shoon. Pleesh, Kish.” “Okay, Jean. I’ll be back soon.”
Funny lady. In fact, like I mentioned, she’s bittersweet funny. She once made a confession to me, complete with animated excitement. She admitted that she loves me more than she does her own husband now because I’m always present and he’s never there. It nearly killed me to hear this. But I kept my composure as I meticulously julienned (using a plastic spoon) a few pieces of Hershey’s Kisses (her favorite) which I eventually started bringing with me everytime I come to visit.
“Don’t say that, Jean. That can’t be true. Wasn’t he here the other day?”
“Yes, but you come more often.”
I’m taking this with a grain of salt… I’m thinking right now, as I shove one julienned piece at a time in her mouth that would only open very slightly (hence, the way she talks). She looks down as she picks it up from the tip of her lips with the help of her tongue. She slowly brings it into her mouth and leaves it there to melt. Then I notice her chin gently moving up and down. This must be the greatest tasting candy in the whole world, I thought. A moment passes, then she looks up to meet me in the eye. Still nibbling on the chocolate, her eyes begin to water gently.
“I’ve been longing to taste this candy for many years now.” She whispers with a trembling voice. “Sometimes, someone would bring me some but because it won’t fit in my mouth, I couldn’t eat them. Until now.”
Jean and I had a very good friendship, to say the least. I will never forget the times we spent together. But much like with Evelyn, I had somehow forgotten, once again, that there is a certain truth about giving. The truth that when you decide to give, not only is there a possibility of not getting anything in return; but also, there’s a distinct danger that whatever else you have which you did not intend to give at all may also be taken away from you. It is a tough lesson, yet it is something that made me the person that I am today. And for that, I have no regrets at all.
After almost a year, it was now just another regular routine. The same ol’ drill, right? Tuesdays and Thursdays? Got it. Although, for some reason, I couldn’t make it one Tuesday. So hey, no big deal, I thought. I’ll do it tomorrow instead. And so, on a Wednesday afternoon, I stopped by the grocery store to grab a new bag of Kisses after work. And I merrily trekked down the ol’ building to do my routine. Now, usually, when I come down, I take a sneak peek at Jean’s room before I make the rounds. And then, when I’m done with everyone else, I come back to her for my last stop. But this time, when I walked in to peek at her room. I was greeted with the darkest of memories. A made but empty bed. My legs were shaking as I ran towards the nurses’ station.
“I’m sorry, she passed away last night.”
Last night. Tuesday night. I was suppose to be here. Come on, what’s another day to wait?
“You’re Chris, right? She’s been asking for you.”
Before I could let the nurse see my reaction, I had simply turned around and stormed out the door. Tears uncontrollably running down my face.
For the first time, I knew. I knew the price of giving. I knew that it costs more than what you’re willing to bargain for. I now will have to remember this for the rest of my life. And even though I decided at that moment that this was just way too much for me to give, I also know that I would never wish to turn back the hands of time either. That I would instead be proud and grateful that I was able to accomplish what I set out to do. That I was able to be unselfish enough to do something like this. Even when it was just for a short period of time.
We don’t have to able to save the whole world. But if we can just make one lowly person smile, it is a job well done.
Well, are you ready for part 3? It’s not as much drama as this one but it’s just as good.