I landed back at home on Monday night. In the two days since my vacation officially ended, the treadmill of university life has been going at a steady, fast jog. I bought my books, attended my first Method in Theology class, met with my advisor, began my stint as a TA in Christian Spirituality, and finished notes on another Underhill book for my ongoing reading course.
But before I leave the vacation totally behind, I want to savour a few of the moments in those ten days that stood out. They were not moments that one would normally think of when relating vacation highlights. They were not spectacular adventures, awe-inspiring views, or once-in-a-lifetime events. Or maybe they were. All I know is that these precious moments were offered to me like a finely prepared meal of grace and mercy, and I sought to partake of them as best I could.
My mother has volunteered at a local personal care facility for many years, and she asked if we wanted to stop in and see an uncle that was now challenged by Alzheimer's. My first reaction was resistance; after all, we were on vacation and a visit to the local seniors' home was not my idea of a pleasant and relaxing outing. I always feel a bit sad and powerless and uncomfortably warm when I go to places like that. But after my mom took us out for a tasty Mexican meal, I decided that we would do whatever she wanted to do that evening. Part of the beauty of being away from your usual setting is letting someone else show you how they live. And this is something my mom would have done even if we were not visiting, so why not do it together?
We drove over to the sprawling building on the west side of town and parked. It was slightly stuffy inside. People in wheelchairs were scattered in different parts of a small TV room, some eating ice cream and others just sitting there, not really looking at anything in particular. What struck me was how quiet a room full of people could be. It was like they didn't have the energy to talk to each other. We spotted my uncle sitting along a wall and my mom approached him. His child-like eyes were wide with wonder as he stared at me. He said he recognised us, but I don't know to what extent. He seemed very pleased to see us, but had little to say.
After a few minutes of stilted conversation and lots of smiles, we headed down the hall and visited another family friend who was there because a stroke had rendered him unable to use one side of his body. In contrast to the other gentleman, he chatted about sports, asked questions about what we were doing, and amused me with memories from my childhood that I had forgotten. He nibbled on his snack of local cheese while watching TV and talking to us. Multi-tasking done quite well, I had to admit.
I always find that I have little to say in situations like this. Some of it is awkwardness, sure, and very often it has been years since I have seen these people or I don't remember them at all, but I know that part of what I embrace when I enter a place where people so obviously need physical and mental wholeness, is humility. I am humbled by their courage intermingled with their despair and lack. I am rendered speechless by their pleading eyes of hope set against a gracious dignity, even in the most undignified circumstances. I am undone by memories of their strength and vitality when I was young, weak, and foolish. I don't really know what they face every day, but I admire them for doing it to the best of their ability.
I am also put to shame by the kind voices and gentle hands of the caregivers. They are confident and capable while being respectful, positive, and personable. I could never do what they do. My mother has spent over 25 years helping people in this place by visiting them, helping them feed themselves, taking them to their doctor's appointments and other outings, raising money for medical equipment, serving on the board, and most recently, taking donations at the funerals of those who have spent time in this facility. It is not for the faint of heart, especially not for those who are uncomfortable with their own mortality and frailty.
As we prepared to leave the facility and were cleaning our hands with the obligatory disinfectant foam near the exit, my mother spoke to an older lady standing in the foyer. She was waiting for a taxi that was taking a long time to come. We were heading across the street for ice cream and she lived 10 blocks away, but Dean offered to give her a ride home even if it was a bit out of our way. She was most grateful, because it was a chilly evening and she was not dressed for the walk. My mom told me later that this woman regularly visits her husband (who used to be a local preacher) and had lost her driver's license due to an incident involving a lapse of vision. It was a simple thing to give her a ride, but it meant a lot to her.
And that's what stays with me about that Friday evening. The simple things. We listened. We looked someone in the eye and let them look back. We went to where they were because they couldn't come to us. We didn't rush away. We smiled. We offered a bit of ourselves, whatever they expressed interest in. We offered a ride to a stranger. We took interest in their work (Dean asked about a new computer system he saw a caregiver using). We remembered them, whether they remembered us or not.
This touched my soul more than the small family excursion to the USA, soaking in the hot tub, walks on sunny days, shopping trips, and play times with my young nieces and nephews, though I loved all of that. May I never miss the opportunity to go to a simple place and offer a simple gift of time and attention.
Jesus said: This is a large work I've called you into, but don't be overwhelmed by it. It's best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won't lose out on a thing. - from Matthew 10, The Message
This is a photo of one of the last remaining flowering sunflowers in a field close to where I grew up. I love sunflowers.