If you have not already, before reading this post you may want to read this first.
Once I became acclimated in my new position as Recreation Director, I started a facility newsletter in the hopes that the families could be informed of events and that it would bridge the gap between the residents and the staff. To my surprise it worked! Each issue showcased one resident. I interviewed the chosen resident and shared a part of their life story. After the first issue, I found that the staff and residents were intrigued and waiting expectantly to see who the next resident would be. Around time the third issue was due, a group of staff members came to me excitedly and told me that I had to make Mr. J my next “Resident of the Month”. I agreed, not knowing the reason why.
Later that day, I went to Mr. J’s room. He was sitting in his usual spot in front of his television. I knocked on his door and he welcomed me with smile and patted the chair near him. Mr. J, was a resident that I didn’t know well. He rarely participated in activities, instead choosing to spend time in his room watching television. He was a short man- not more than five feet tall, sort of hunched at the shoulders, and had a smile that literally spread across half of his face. His laugh, a sort of “huh huh” sound was loud and infectious. The skin on his face and hands were scaly, somewhat like a lizard's, and he would later explain (without my asking) that his condition was a result of working with embalming fluid, as he was an undertaker for many years.
I sat in the chair beside him, explained the reason for my visit and asked permission to turn off the television. Eagerly he talked about his life- his childhood, his occupation, his love for music- the basics. I was confused as to why the staff was adamant about him being resident of the month. I can not for the life of me remember what I asked that prompted him to share this story, but once I heard it I understood the staff’s excitement. I still feel that same excitement as I am writing this so many years later.
Mr. J grew up just a few miles away from the facility. He was a poor black boy growing up in the south living out his childhood long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and before Martin Luther King gave his famous speech. At that time, and for many years after there was only one “black” high school. There were no buses for transportation, and he was forced to pay 5 cents to ride the city bus. Often, he was unable to afford the public transportation, so would walk several miles to be afforded the opportunity of an education. It was during those walks that he met another boy- Mr. H. Soon the two became fast friends, only riding the city bus when both had enough money for the fare. Mr. J fondly recalled those walks, explaining that Mr. H was his best friend up until their early 20’s. Mr. J had moved north, Mr. H remained in the south and though they tried their best to keep in touch the miles that separated them took a toll on the friendship. Mr. J told me that he never forgot his dear friend and thought of him often, but explained that it was different then and harder to stay in contact with one another. He recalled the last time seeing his dear friend was in his early 20’s when Mr. H had traveled up north to visit him. He paused for a moment, seemingly caught up in the memory of that time. I waited quietly, watching him intently, eager for him to continue.
And then, as if suddenly remembering my presence and the reason for my visit he resumed his story. Excitement and energy now filled the room. I was intrigued. He began talking of meal times, and of how many times he had taken the short walk from his room to the dining room. How often he had sat in his assigned seat with three other men, waiting for the staff to bring his meal to the table, enjoying their company and conversation, but not knowing their names. And then, how just a few days earlier, the seat across from him was empty. Not really paying it any mind, he continued to converse with the other two men, and then he heard the staff discussing the missing man. He recalled hearing a staff member ask“Where is Mr. H?”, and remembered thinking to himself that he once knew a Mr. H. A short time later, Mr. H was wheeled to his usual spot at the table, his meal tray placed in front of him. Mr. J focused more of his attention on Mr. H, not daring to believe that it could possibly be his friend. He began asking him questions about his life- where he lived and where he went to school- only to find out that he was indeed sitting across the table from his best friend. The man who he grew up with- the man he had not seen in over 40 years had been sitting across the table from him for months and he never knew it. I could see the joy in his eyes, as he continued to tell me how, once they got over the initial shock, they sat at that table long after meal time ended, talking. Sharing once again the camaraderie they had so many years ago. At the time of my interview, he was still giddy with the excitement of being reunited with his oldest friend.
Shortly after, the newsletter was printed and distributed. The story made them celebrities for a while, as the staff and residents wanted to hear the story firsthand from Mr. J. himself.
Long after my interview, while walking the halls, I would see the two of them visiting. We would exchange pleasantries, and I would go on about my business, a smile on my face. What a miraculous occurrence that after so many years, Mr. H and Mr. J would be reunited, when true friendship was what they needed most.
Tomorrow, I will share how spending time with someone who is unapproachable can make all the difference.
Other Posts in this series: The Nursing Home and Me, The Nursing Home and Me Part 3- Russell, The Nursing Home and Me Part 4- It's Not Always as it Appears, The Nursing Home and Me Part 5- Miracle at Ellis Island.