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At the nursing home where my dad stays, there is a man down the hall that I will call the Officer. Today, as I was walking by his room, the Officer was trying to recruit his roommate to enlist. “We need people like you to stand up and fight!” The Officer seemed to not notice that his roommate is over 400 lbs with a trach, tube in his throat, and cannot, in fact, stand up.
It’s moments like these that keep me smiling. The Officer doesn’t know, but I have been doing a good job of finding joy in the little things. And I keep running into more little things to be joyful about.
The Officer is about 80 years old, white hair, always in bright blue polo shirts and trousers, and I see him almost every time I walk down the hall. He is a friendly man, but very purpose-driven. And his purpose is the war. He is firmly entrenched in a delusion that we are in a major worldwide conflict and that the nursing home is some sort of command center. When I pass him in the hall, he looks at me, so I say hello and smile. Usually, he will tell me something like: “They told me to wait here for my orders.” or “Have you seen the man in charge?”
It’s not my place to confront his delusion and doing so wouldn’t help him get better anyway so I play along: “That’s good, wait here for them” or “The man in charge is gone; it’s Saturday.” The staff here play along too. When he comes to the desk and asks if he can speak to the General, the nurse says: “Sorry, I can’t get him. He is busy on the phone with the President.”
Every time I talk to the Officer, he makes my soul happy. And not because I am looking on with bemusement at his break with reality. Rather, his drive and sincerity, in this place of malaise and slow age make me wonder about his life. What was he a part of when he was in the military that sends him back there so firmly in his old age? What has he seen? What has he done? I respect him so much.
Feeling respect and giving respect can make the difference between an abysmal day and a day worth fighting through. The other night at the gas station I got that unexpected respect. I was going in to prepay for gas with the cashier. All I was trying to do was make it through until I could get home and rest. It had been a very. long. day. I didn’t expect anything but the most cursory courtesy from the cashier, but this is what I got:
Me: $30 on pump 3, regular.
Him: How are you?
Me: Better than yesterday.
Him: Well that’s a step in the right direction!
Me: I guess so.
(As I am walking out the door) Him: Here’s to tomorrow!
Me: Here’s to tomorrow!
He didn’t need to give a damn about me to make that sale, but yet he did. He looked me in the eyes and actually wanted to know how I was. I could tell. And that’s why I didn’t just say “Fine” He genuinely wanted to know how I was doing. It made my day for him to reach out in that little way. To just be sincere to another human.
It’s amazing how far the little things go. Today we were at Duke Hospital with my dad. Dealing with the stress of getting him there safely and on time could have pushed us past breaking by the time we got to his appointment, but it didn’t because of the strangers who cared. The valet who helped put dad’s wheelchair together, the nursing staff who seemed thrilled to see each person they met, even the people who designed the waiting room. It was big and spacious and had a nutrition area with free snacks and ice. The staff there was truly phenomenal. We were in the outpatient cancer building and everyone, from the receptionist, to the nurse, to the tech doing vitals, to the guy at the info desk, to the random staff members we passed in the hall, Everyone was genuinely happy to see us and genuinely friendly to us.
They treated us like people, like people they would like to know.
And isn’t that what makes people want to be people? To keep going when you are in a room full of industrial fans and it’s raining poo? When people really and truly care about you. When they look you in the eye and acknowledge you. When they ask you a question and are drawn into your answer with fascination.
Being known is what makes life worth living.
Some people are good at knowing people and caring right off the bat, like today at Duke. Sometimes it’s harder. Sometimes it takes time. It has been harder here at the nursing home where my dad has been for over a month. A job working at a nursing home, where staff are underpaid and overworked does not attract world class employees. So, when they are stressed, they show it. And they are always stressed. Furthermore, when they don’t know you, they aren’t very good at sincerely caring about you. And it’s hard to get to know people in a nursing home, especially when you work here.
But now we have been here for more than a month so, they are starting to get to know us and get to know dad. Last night, we had a long long conversation with the nurse, a sincere conversation. And it was good.
And today we watched the US vs Belgium in the World Cup in dad’s room. The TVs here don’t get ESPN so Mom and Dad and I were huddled around my laptop watching it on Univision (even though we don’t speak Spanish) When that same nurse came in to give dad his meds, she huddled around the laptop too! It turns out that she played goalkeeper back in the day. Then, the nurse’s aide came in, and, she was so excited to see the game that she wrapped her arm around me and squeezed in right next to me to watch too. We were no longer patient and nurse or servant and served. We were together, on the same team, rooting for victory.
And no, I am not talking about soccer anymore.
Reaching out to another human. Being touched by another human. That is joy. That is what brings me joy. That is what makes life worth living.
Soul touching soul.
There is no one with more soul here at the nursing home than Cindy*. She could be 30; she could be 60; I can’t tell. I do know that whenever I have been near her she has been laughing. And no one has a laugh like Cindy. She laughs when she gets a question right in therapy. She laughs when she does well and is praised. She laughs if she does wrong. She laughs if you say hi to her in the hall. Cindy is made of laughter, never sarcastic or manic laughter. Cindy’s laughter is made of squeals of delight and giggles of glee, pitched high over mounds of love of life. She is just happy, happy all the time. Happy when, Tina* the therapist asks her her name and she responds “Coconut!” happy when she is working hard to stand up. Life is joy for Cindy and Cindy’s laugh is joy for everyone it touches.
In my dream world, I am some combination of Cindy, the Officer, and that gas station cashier. I reach out to strangers with smiles and sincerity. I am kind. I am happy. I am loving.
Instead, I am a ball of stress and worries. I walk with a stoic face. I avoid “useless” interactions. I tear people down based on what I see with my eyes. I don’t look with my heart. Mostly, I just look at my phone.
I don’t know any magic way to change, except the little way.
I have found when I appreciate these little things, these little joys, these little interactions, I have more joy to give. And the circle is unbroken. And the joy expands. And the world becomes a little easier to live in.
For all of us.
Photography: Nathan Congleton