I’ve taught a Sunday school class for over 22 years. The first day I walked in the average age of the 55 members present was 60. Since then I’ve experience all the stages of aging. Sunday, the 34th member of my class passed away in an excellent Nursing Home. He died in his sleep.
I’d like to die in my sleep, but not after having a stroke, rehabilitation, and slowly deteriorating health. I lose a friend in Christ and a friend in life with every death. The hardest part starts a year or two before they die. I watch their bodies change, though their faith remains strong. I watch their spouse fight to keep them at home and care for them. I watch their strength fail and the inevitable decline until home care becomes impossible. My life goes on, but I see my future. I wrote a short fiction story to describe my feelings a few years ago. I’d like to search it with you today.
Charlie Bower pulled his new Nissan Altima to a stop in a visitor’s parking space in front of Beams of Light Nursing Home. Although he’d visited here many times, today held no pleasure for him at all. He pushed his car door open, took a deep breath, and eased his legs onto the pavement. Jake Harman was his longtime friend and the oldest member of Charlie’s Sunday school class. He’d been the one with a joke and a smile until the stroke hit him. Charlie had taught the Elder Saints class for nineteen years. Visits to nursing homes were never easy.
I don’t think I can do this anymore, he thought, lifting himself to his feet. In the past two decades, he’d attended the funerals of twenty-eight class members and officiated at eighteen of them. He limped up the walkway to the iron gate and pushed it open. The smell of honeysuckle filled the air, as the breeze played havoc with Charlie’s thick gray hair.
From the outside, the nursing home looked like an exquisite place to stay—cement statutes, a crisply mowed lawn, and gorgeous flowers welcomed everyone walking up the brick path leading to the front door. But Charlie knew the agony waiting inside.
His Bible in his hand, he punched the entrance code into the keypad and opened the door. He coughed out of habit as he entered the building. The air smelled stale, and he never got rid of the pungent odor of urine while inside.
“Welcome back, Mr. Bower,” the receptionist said, glancing up. She pointed to the sign-in sheet.
He filled out the information and headed down the hallway, passing the dining room on his left and the bingo room on his right.
“Where’s Jonathon?” a woman’s voice cried out.
Charlie paused. Along the sides of the hall, blue and gray haired ladies sat lined up in wheelchairs. He wasn’t sure which woman had asked the question.
A passing nurse said, “Never mind her. Her husband, Jonathon, has been dead for twenty-two years.”
Charlie managed a, “Good morning, Ladies.”
Two of the women answered him in weak but lucid voices.
A person’s body revealed failing health. This was the easy part to identify. Charlie had to look in the eyes and listen to the voice to tell if the mind was still sharp. A person walking steadily along the hall could have a healthy body, but little recollection of people or events at all. Jake Harman’s stroke had left him somewhere in the middle.
As difficult as it was seeing his friend in this place, walking down the hall to his room was worse. The despair of aging surrounding him caused Charlie to focus his eyes on the room numbers, until he finally reached his destination.
“Mr. Harman’s in the bathroom,” a perky young aide said. “Give us a minute, and we’ll bring him out.”
She knocked on the bathroom door and called out, “Are you done yet, Mr. Harman?”
“I need some help getting up.” Jake’s voice quivered, but weak as it was, Charlie knew the ring of it. He heard a couple of scuffs and bumps.
The aide asked, “Can you make it out on your own?”
“I can try.”
“I’ll hold your arm.”
With a shuffle and a limp, Jake rounded the corner of the bathroom door, and his eyes moistened. “You came to see me.”
He reached out both arms to give Charlie a hug, but slipped a little, and the aide nestled him into his chair and covered his lap with a blanket.
“I get wobbly. I can only lift my foot up this high.” He grunted, but the foot didn’t move. “If I’d only gone to the doctor earlier, but I figured the weakness in my leg was from overexertion. The stroke affected my left side, my face, my arm and leg. But I still got my mind.” Jake sighed and looked up at Charlie. “Why haven’t you or your wife come before?”
“I was here with Betty last week. Maybe you were tired.”
He’d been to see Jake six times since the stroke a month ago.
The other bed in the room was empty. An old man unable to feed himself had been Jake’s companion. “Where’s your roommate?”
“Oh, I don’t know. He’s out walking around somewhere.”
The old man who had been Jake’s roommate couldn’t sit up by himself let alone walk around. Charlie dropped the subject. “The class misses you.”
“I want to go home,” Jake said. “I want to go to church and be normal again.”
Unless there was drastic improvement, Jake wasn’t going home. His wife, Irene, couldn’t take care of him. She was too fragile to help him move from place to place, and Jake still couldn’t use a walker to get around. Charlie had talked to the family, seen the home, and had to agree. The best place for Jake was here at Beams of Light—the safest, not the happiest.
As they talked, Charlie’s dismay at his friend’s condition increased. Jake fumbled for words and stopped his thoughts mid-sentence. After Jake’s stroke, Charlie’s wife, Betty, posted a list of stroke symptoms on their refrigerator. A crooked smile, difficulty talking coherently, the inability to raise both arms, each was a warning sign. At least once a month, Betty would ask Charlie to stick out his tongue. A crooked tongue was another sign.
As Jake talked, Charlie’s mood grew dark. He pointed to the window, “Mind if I open the blinds?”
“Oh, are they closed?”
Charlie got up and opened them, revealing a beautiful view of the grounds.
“Do they ever wheel you outside?”
“That’s where they took my roommate. I don’t want to go outside. I want to go home. He was a devil you know.”
“My roommate. At night he’d float off his bed.”
“Maybe you dreamed that.”
“Sometimes I can’t tell what’s real and what’s not. People tell me I see things that aren’t there, but they seem real to me.”
“With strokes many people have hallucinations.”
“That’s what they say. No one comes to see me.”
“Didn’t Dave come yesterday?”
“Oh yes, he did. Now that I think about it, class members come to see me quite often.” Jake’s hands covered his face. “But after they leave, I’m alone. It’s like they never came.”
He reached out his right hand and grasped Charlie’s. “I didn’t realize how much I loved our class, until I couldn’t go. I didn’t know how much you and everyone there meant to me.”
Charlie felt the trickle of a tear rolling down his face. “We won’t ever forget about you. You’re in our prayers daily.”
“I asked God to heal me, but I guess that ain’t happening.”
“Sometimes healing is a process, not a miracle.” Where those words came from, Charlie didn’t know. “In the Bible, believers got sick. Our prayers are for you to be completely healed and restored home to your family. I believe that will happen. Until then, we’ll visit. We’ll pray, and we’ll help Irene cope.”
Jake clutched Charlie’s hand, his eyes staring at his own feet. “Irene needs looking after,” he said. “The kids are taking turns spending the night with her.”
“Kay and Dorsey from our class do scrapbooking with her.”
Jake looked up and smiled. “That’s good.”
Charlie looked at his watch. His mind tugged between staying and going, either way someone would be disappointed in him. “I need to leave. I’ve got errands to run.”
The pressure on his hand from Jake’s grip increased and then relaxed.
“You’ll be coming back?”
What could he say? He’d been in this role for so long he knew how he’d answer. “I’ll be back to see you soon.”
“Okay, I’ll let you go. My roommate will be back soon.”
Charlie hugged Jake and made his way to the door, looking back for a final wave goodbye. As he headed down the hall, he bemoaned his own stage of life. Jake was eighty years old. He was sixty-nine. What condition would he be in eleven years from now? He slouched as he walked. Oblivious to his surroundings, his eyes followed the lines in the carpet. The quality of life for the aged held no cheery outlook unless one’s faith in an afterlife was strong.
He looked up to see the woman who’d spoken. Her face held invisible scars from hidden pain. Her hands were gnarled and arthritic. Charlie leaned down and whispered, “He’s in a nice place.”
The woman’s eyes brightened.
“How sweet,” she said and gave out a little chuckle. “No one else seemed to know.”
Surprised but pleased, he patted the woman’s hand.
“Come again,” she whispered leaning toward him. “I’ll bake you some cookies. Chocolate chip cookies were Jonathon’s favorite.”
“See you then,” Charlie answered.
He signed out. The receptionist pushed the button allowing him to open the door. The wind patted his face as he breathed in a gulp of clean air. His pace leaving moved faster than coming.
You’re selfish, Charlie Bower.
Charlie Bower didn’t want to return to Beams of Light or to visit any nursing home. He didn’t want to see his future through the eyes of his friends. However, before most of his class graduated to the great beyond, this step occurred first. Who else would visit them, if not him? He sighed. Yes, he would be returning.
He stopped the pity party, turned the key in the ignition, and checked his grocery list. Three six-ounce yogurts, some bananas, and a pound of shaved ham, falling apart, Betty was specific about the ham.