Home > Books, Music, Personal > My heart’s / right there

My heart’s / right there

This old

This old

The book I’m reading sends me back in time. One moment, I’m in its pages; the next, I’m seventeen years old and racing down Eugene’s 18th Street on my boyfriend’s bicycle, headed for another Certified Nursing Assistant shift at a nursing home long term care facility.

I loved working there. I loved the moments in between tending to people’s physical needs where I got to hear who they were. I listened to what they could tell of their stories and imagined a million other stories between each of those.

My favorite lady, E, could not speak. She’d ask me questions by pointing at letters printed on a laminated piece of paper and listen raptly as I told her about my family, boyfriend, and dreams. She was sad for me whenever I seemed down, and told me with concern etched on her face to please take care of myself.

Another lady once expressed sadness about how seldom people visited her. I threw my arms around her to show my sympathy, only to realize I hadn’t applied deodorant that morning. “Oh, my!” she said, laughing as she pulled away. “I may be sad, but my nose still works just fine!”

(“I’ll wear it next time, I promise,” I mumbled.)

A woman in her late 30s or early 40s had far progressed Multiple Sclerosis. We talked about anything and everything as I pushed her between the cafeteria and her room. I was impressed by how upbeat she remained despite how greatly everything in her life had changed since she taught P.E. not so many years before. I was less impressed by some of my coworkers’ reactions when she grew angry and frustrated one solitary day. Grumbled one of my coworkers, “I don’t see why she has to take out her bad mood on me!”

I looked at her with perplexity I couldn’t articulate. The resident’s fury that day was perfectly understandable to me; what I didn’t understand was how her genuine, rare expression of frustration so comprehensible could be taken as an affront to those moving freely around her. I walked away wordless toward my tasks, returning on my break to tell the resident how sorry I was.

She gazed out the window without acknowledging me. I left, not offended.

It wasn’t about me.

I was incensed when the administration chastised me for spending too much time talking to residents. It didn’t matter that those conversations usually happened on my breaks. My job was to clean, to tend physically, and to move on to the next resident. I was to spend my breaks in the break room.

I was still so impetuous then that, after a short time reflecting, I turned in my notice. The administration quickly told me they would create a position just for me, one in which my sole role would be to spend time with residents around mealtimes. My biggest physical responsibility would be transporting residents between their rooms and the cafeteria.

I was still so aggravated by them that I politely declined. I wondered if it was the right choice. Wasn’t my big eff-you more detrimental to the residents than to the company?

It didn’t matter enough. I wouldn’t take it back. But even after all these years,

part of me is still that seventeen-year-old
biking furiously toward work in hopes
of arriving on time,

watching, listening, hearing, loving,
and forever (mis?)remembering
the words to a song
one resident taught me,
and then asked me
to sing to her
whenever i
walked her
back to
her room.

how she loved it when i sang
that song, no matter how
off-key i sang it! how
she laughed, and
said thank you,
when i was
bid her adieu
with, “until next time!”

tipperary was with me then,
and it’s with me two
decades later, so that
i can read a book about
a teenager living now but without
much time left to live,
and find myself smiling
and humming that

It’s a long way to Tipperary.
It’s a long way to go.
It’s a long way to Tipperary,
to the sweetest guy I know.
Farewell, Picadelly!
Farewell, Lester Square!
It’s a long way to Tipperary,
but my heart’s
right there!

Li'l D and Cashier sittin' in the tree

  1. February 21, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    There’s no shame in growing old, Deborah… only in forgetting the youth that will always reside within you.

  2. February 21, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    You have jumped on a few of my buttons today.
    I have MS. Some days things get to me. A paddle in the pity (or grumpy) pool is fine. I believe it is only a problem when that paddle becomes a wallow.
    I also volunteer on a crisis line. And soooooooo many people are lonely. So very lonely.
    I strongly believe that your kind words, your attention, the fact that you LISTENED meant more to those people than the medical care they were receiving.
    Thank you.
    And that song, is also a piece of my past…

    • February 21, 2016 at 1:23 pm

      I see little hints of that loneliness in so many places. What surprises me today is thinking of these moments and realizing that I really wasn’t as terrible as I remember myself being. As I envision it, I was a lost cause with no redeeming traits. Revisiting these memories makes me see that there really was more than that. I did listen, and I did hear, and I miss and love all those folks all these years later. They will be with me as long as I’m me.

      Also, while I tend to be an upbeat, positivity seeking person in real life, I am concerned by almost cultish devotion to positivity. Some times are hard. Some are devastating. Some days are blue. I think it’s important to experience all of life’s emotions and understand that each has its place, not try to constrain and restrain self and others so that only the peppiest and brightest and perkiest of all things is permissible. That’s a grim world to me, and not nearly as beautiful as this nuanced, more complicated one in which I’m happy to live.

      As always, I am moved by and grateful for your comments.

  3. February 21, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    Love this post 💜 it takes an immense amount of love and understanding to work with people who are more often than not more child like. My mom worked in nursing homes for much of my childhood…they are some of my fondest memories. Well done love.

    • February 26, 2016 at 4:14 am

      I’m going to look for volunteer opportunities welcoming kids. I’d like D (and, later, J) to have the kinds of experiences I did when my mom took me to the nursing home long before I worked there.

  4. February 21, 2016 at 6:19 pm

    What a wonderful story and what a great gift you gave to those residents just by listening to them. When I was a teen I would go with my mom to visit her grandmother in the nursing home where she lived and I always loved to hear the stories she and the other ladies and gentleman would tell. It was like time traveling without leaving the room.

    • February 26, 2016 at 4:16 am

      “time traveling without leaving the room” – Exactly! I loved that time travel and the folks who enabled me to time travel, in ways that have stuck with me for a couple decades now.

  5. February 22, 2016 at 7:15 am

    How wonderful it is to listen and share stories as you cared for the residents. It reminds me of kind people who work where my Grandma lives. Another friend of mine worked in a nursing home and said she felt like she had extra grandparents there! The compassion and kindness really do mean a lot.

    • February 26, 2016 at 4:19 am

      I wonder if they remembered me as I continue to remember them … and I smile every time I remember E being glad to show her concern for me–that the compassion flowed both ways. Smiling thanks to these reflections, too. ♥

  6. February 24, 2016 at 3:42 am

    Isn’t it odd, I also worked in a Nursing Home when I was young. I strongly believe much of the empathy I still have comes from the time I spent there. One side of our facility was for the elderly the other side was for the young and severely disabled, I worked both sides. Like you, I spent time with the residents talked and listened, made friends even. I still remember many of them fondly.

    I believe I was greatly blessed by their stories and friendships.

    • February 24, 2016 at 3:51 am

      My mom took us to the same nursing home I later worked at when I was younger. It was terrifying the first several minutes, but I eased into it after that.

      Those early visits had a huge impact on me, so much so that they found their way into The Monster’s Daughter. Reading the novel I just finished last night (to, oh, an hour of sobbing) really got me thinking how I want to take my kids as my own mom once took me. I think those visits and that short stint as a CNA had much more profound impacts on me than I understood until I finished reading that gorgeous, heartbreaking novel.

  7. February 25, 2016 at 5:54 am

    This is absolutely beautiful! I also used to volunteer when I was younger, and I always enjoyed listening to elderly people’s stories.

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