This time of year always makes me remember being a senior in college and participating in Nursing Home Ministry. It was something that Tom and I did with a group of other students from Franciscan University. Particularly, I remember Kevin, possibly the most moving experience during my time there! I had written this story back on break during 2007, it’s one of my favorite memories and it still brings tears to my eyes to recall it.
I hope you enjoy:
I met him one fall afternoon in my senior year of college. He was tall, handsome and quiet. I could tell before I met him that Kevin was a gentle man. He sat in the same chair, in front of the same window, each day. The look on his face was undistinguishable, neither bored nor interested. Every day he wore a blue sweatsuit with matching blue slippers and white baseball socks. It was clear that Kevin was much younger than everyone else at the nursing home. His dark skin was still taut and smooth and his mustache was neatly trimmed and devoid of white hairs.
It was obvious by the look in his eyes that he was alert. You read about people with sparkle in their eyes, but I never actually met someone who did until I met him. His eyes seemed outgoing and talkative, if one can give eyes a personality. They needed to have personality though, because he could barely talk and thus chose not to. At first this saddened me but it also piqued my curiosity about this man. Communication is what draws together individuals and forms relationships. Without relationships, life would be a depressing cloister of emotion . The nurses didn’t seem as troubled in this matter as I was. They said Kevin liked to sit there alone. He had been in an accident, and not spoken a word for years.
One day, I sat with him in those waxy nursing home chairs and asked simple yes or no questions. “Are you having a good day?” “Was lunch good?” “Are you excited about bingo night?” Slowly, he would shake his head according to what he felt as his large hands held onto the arms of his seat. When I asked him if he liked the Beatles, he nodded his head a definite yes. Others in the home said they liked the Beatles, so I decided next time to bring in a Beatles CD and picture book for a change in activity.
When that day came I put on the disc and sat beside Kevin with the picture book in my lap. He was the only one in the room who was cognitive enough to look through it. That was the thing. He seemed perfectly fine. I knew that there had to be something deeper, something undiscovered within this man. I started to flip through the Beatles book, pointing to members of the band and naming them. Slowly I talked about the instruments in the pictures and songs they wrote. All through our telepathic conversation his eyes would let me know if he was enjoying the topic or ready for me to turn the page.
On our third time through the book, I tried to ask him something aside from our usual yes or no questions. I pointed to a picture of the drummer for the Beatles and asked him who it was. He immediately stopped smacking his lips together as he usually did repetitively, and instead moved his lips slowly up and down, as if he was trying to say something. I stared at him, aware that his eyes were quickly darting between the picture and me. Through his brown eyes which stared unfaltering into mine, he seemed to be screaming “give me one more minute and I’ll say it!” After a long silence, he replied confidently “Ringo Starr.” He was completely right. It was such joy to finally hear the sound of his voice! Excited by this tiny accomplishment we moved on to other pictures; I would point and he would tell me who it was. Each time he was right.
Despite the fact that the majority of our time conversing was silent, those visits were one of the best parts of my week. It was a sweet conversation of learning; having him teach me to be paitient and me teaching him to open up. Sometimes I wondered if he was answering my questions to be polite but really wanted me to stop. I took comfort when I asked him if I talked too much. He looked at me with those intense dark eyes, began the lip motion and told me “no”. So our conversations continued each week when I would go to the nursing home with a group of students from the university. Kevin was just trapped within himself. He understood, talked, and listened really well.
The moment I will never forget, is the day I brought my Earth, Wind and Fire CD in. I knew it was his favorite band and I wanted to surprise him to see how he would react. Disco jazz took over the living room at the nursing home and you could see him get happier. He started snapping his fingers and tapping his foot, then he turned to me and said “I’m listening to the music!”. That was the second time he had spoken to me without being asked a question. I smiled at him and we sat next to each other in our usual chairs, in front of the same window, just enjoying the music. Whenever I hear that album, I am reminded of how happy he was in that moment. He would name each of the songs as they came on, sometimes even before the vocalist started singing. You could tell he was genuinely happy. His inner self seemed to delight in the beat of the melody. After a while of listening, I asked him the usual questions, “How was your day?” “Are you happy?” “Did anybody come to visit this week?” That time, when I asked him what the best part of his day was and after waiting for the typical two minutes he responded, “Your visit”. Immediately I felt a lump form in my throat. Guilt swept over me for not coming to visit more often , I didn’t have many excuses.
It was understandable that he was often overlooked. After all it appeared to everyone, even myself, that he couldn’t talk. The staff said they hadn’t heard him say a word in years. It was devastating to think that he was there all day long, left alone to sit in his nursing home chair and converse inwardly with himself. I still can’t bear to remember that window with him in front of it, in the same blue sweatsuit, wearing that blank expression on his face. Yet, I am glad I will never forget what a gift it was to be able to pause in that moment and see the happiness reflected in his eyes and the tap of his foot. Watching him enjoy the music that day made me forget about all my anxieties. The beauty of the moment that we were sharing had changed me.
Sometimes silence is a pathway to the most meaningful conversations of our lives. Who we are when we are silent or alone is never a facade but the truth of our being. I am so grateful and forever moved. Somehow sitting in that stiff, waxy nursing home chair, listening to the jazz, just watching Kevin become happy made me understand the immeasurable joy that can come from companionship, with or without words.