I wasn't especially happy about going there, partly because I just wanted to get home, and partly because I didn't know what to expect. But here I was in the car, the lush green trees going by too fast. I glanced at my friend, Cori, who confidently drove up the road she had often traveled. I wondered how Cori, a former Miss Teen Connecticut, could be so passionate about something that seemed so unappealing. She had sought me out one day to ask if I would like to volunteer with her. I was unsure and a little scared, but despite that here I was, at the threshold of the red-brick building.
Inside, what I saw overwhelmed me: people dying, their wheelchairs providing a prop for their withered, worn bodies. The smell made me feel sick and I could taste the odor as we went into different rooms. I was introduced to the residents, many of whom could barely hear. Others would listen, and reach for my hands, begging for a hug - a treasure they rarely got. Some screamed wild things, and even thought Cori was my mother. When I left, I was shaken. I closed my eyes and tried to sort out the images of the convalescent home.
I won't tell of every encounter I had, only that I kept going back. What compelled me to continue was unclear at first, but suddenly, I found myself driving there every week. Eventually something wonderful began to happen. I got to know the residents, and they were not at all as they seemed at first. They truly loved everyone. At times they didn't remember me, but I began to understand how much sunshine a smile could bring, and that a gesture of sensitivity could make a difference.
In the rec room, I sang and danced with those in
wheelchairs I had once thought were no more alive than statues. I listened to their life stories - one had been a singer, one a Marine, and many were parents. I loved to talk with them about their families, and some showed me pictures of grandchildren. What I found most amazing was the humiliation they had to deal with: many couldn't bathe themselves, much less go to the bathroom without help. Yet they retained their pride simply by living, loving, and seeing each other as wonderful, regardless of their imperfections.
One day I was asked to help polish ladies' fingernails. I was no expert, so I was a little nervous. I was messy, but one woman told me not to worry, thanked me, and said, "You made my fingers look pretty." These words were short and simple, but I was surprised by them.
I grew fond of the residents, especially Rose, who one day grabbed my arm and whispered, "I'm so happy to see you. I'm so happy you come."
I've been there every week for a year and a half now. Cori went to college, and left me to preside over a group from our school who visit the residents. I continue to sing, dance and talk with them. I have developed two new skills: the ability to listen to unspoken words, and to see the beauty behind each individual. I enjoy their stories, and realize now how much knowledge they possess, knowledge that cannot be found in books.
They are inspiring, and encourage me in so many things. I recall one conversation with a lady about school. "Do you do well in school?" she asked.
"I try," I said, a grin leaking across my face.
"You have to do your best," she said, very serious. "Your education is so important."
"Make sure to do your best. You're going to go somewhere in life."
Sometimes I watch these people and think what I would tell others if I were asked to put into words the motivation they give, or if I could accurately describe my experiences. Deep down, I don't think there are words. I can only encourage others to visit. I believe only with experience can one really feel compassion and the lessons that they teach us. After thinking hard, I smile, and am able to understand my motivation.
Looking into the eyes of the residents and seeing a story of laughter and tears, and knowing that by showing simple compassion, I am becoming part of their story, even if they do not remember me five minutes later; I am a part of them, one who makes them happy and impacts their lives for the better.
It is this that makes it all worthwhile.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.