Old Shells

The old man sat inches away from the television screen, staring at, but not seeing, the figures flitting on the screen.  As always, the volume was cranked up to an excruciatingly obnoxious level.  Still, he didn’t comprehend any of the conversation coming from the speakers.

We went to the nursing home every Sunday.

Every Sunday.

We sang songs.  Dad spoke.  I’d say he preached, but his messages were never like the sermons you heard in church.  He talked to people about God.  He told stories that helped make sense of the sometimes obscure words from the pages of the King James Bible in his hands.

If I told you they listened, I’d be exaggerating for most of them.  They sat.  Perhaps, they enjoyed the music, but for most, the words no longer sank in.

I didn’t understand why we were there.

Before the singing and the talking, we went and found people who wanted to come and sit.  We’d gather them from the dining room and the common rooms where the televisions blared out their drivel and roll them in their wheelchairs or take their arms as they scooted their feet along the hard tile floor in a tedious and laborious imitation of walking.

I preferred the wheelchair people.

On the day I am thinking about, I had the bad luck to be the one sent after the old, nearly deaf man sitting with his nose next to the television screen.  A Hispanic man, Juan spoke only broken English, but he loved to hear the music and didn’t want to miss a Sunday.  I reluctantly (and resentfully) took the time to walk him down the hallway, his feet shuffling slowly all the way.

One of the other residents had the good fortune to have a family member with her that day, a beautiful young lady who sat and sang along with the hymns.  She also sat attentively and smiled throughout the entire talk Dad had prepared.

I know.  I was watching her the whole time.  What teenage boy wouldn’t?

The meeting over, I helped Juan back to his feet and the old fellow, in his eighties, looked over at the pretty girl and smiled.  She rewarded him with a beaming smile of her own and a little wave.

I turned the old fellow around and walked/dragged him back to the common area from whence we had come almost an hour before.  He wasn’t in a hurry.  He wanted to talk.  It was mostly in Spanish, but I understood a few of the words.

He talked about his wife.  And kisses.  I heard him say the word esposa and beso several times.  I looked at his face as he talked.

The old man’s voice was animated and his eyes danced as he spoke.  The young girl had reminded him of a happier time, many years before.

He remembered.

In his mind, he was back there again, back in the land of the living.  When I left him sitting, nose against the television screen once more, the smile she gave to him was still plastered across his face.

I realized on that day, why we were wasting our time on these old worn-out shells of humans.

There were people inside those shells.

Jenny Kiss’d Me

Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in.
Time, you thief! who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in.
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad;
Say that health and wealth have missed me;
Say I’m growing old, but add–
Jenny kissed me.

(James Henry Leigh Hunt ~ English author/poet ~ 1784-1859)

There aren’t often poems included in these little articles, but it seemed appropriate tonight.  Did you really read it? Perhaps it would be helpful to read it again before we go on.

I’ll wait.

Every day they come through my doors.  Every day.  Old people.  Lives over, but still wanting attention.  Bossy, know-it-all, ancient has-beens who want me to recognize who they were and what they’ve done.

I’m learning to see past the blue hair (or no hair), the physical impairments, and the wrinkles.  Finally.  I’m trying to see them.  The real them.

Like the old man at the nursing home, they have lived.  They’re still living, but circumstances limit their new experiences.  But, they still need folks around them to see who they are and to recognize their accomplishments.

I read the poem above earlier tonight and I couldn’t help but catch my breath as the truth I remember seeing in that nursing home over forty years ago hit me once again.

We don’t treat people well because they are useful to us.  We don’t give them respect because of their youth and vigor.  We don’t esteem folks for what they can do today.

We respect and honor people because they are people.  Human beings–made in the image of their Creator, just as all of us are.

There are real people in those shells.  Short or tall, thin or stout, gorgeous or plain.

Real people.

Who were kissed by Jenny.  Or Gabriela.

It still matters.

“It is lovely to meet an old person whose face is deeply lined, a face that has been deeply inhabited, to look in the eyes and find light there.”
(John O’Donohue ~ Irish priest/author ~ 1956-2008)

“And now, in my old age, don’t set me aside.  Don’t abandon me when my strength is failing.”
(Psalm 71:9 ~ NLT)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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