I am on the rehab floor today. The social worker is on the phone when I arrive, and I hear her end of a conversation with a son, talking about his mother being upset here. When the social worker gets off the phone, she tells me that the man’s mother is in her 90’s, and is going blind due to macular degeneration. She is upset because people are treating her as though she is dumb or deaf. The social worker asks me to go visit with her about the grievance process and get her side of the story.
I knock softly on the closed door, my heart in my throat. I am not afraid to talk with the crankier residents; in fact, I usually enjoy them. But there’s always that initial anxiety about talking with a new person; I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with their age and everything to do with my own personality.
I hear a soft response to my knock, so I open the door. She is lying in bed, left arm draped over her forehead. She turns towards the door and smiles, looking at the door frame. I ask her if she would mind telling me what happened yesterday morning that upset her. She immediately puts me off, telling me it doesn’t matter, that she’s “an old bat of a lady anyway”, and no one will believe her. I take her hand in mine, surprised at the strength behind her grip, and tell her that I will believe her.
She points to three flower arrangements on her dresser, telling me that they were on the sliding table on the other end of the room. She stated that she asked the night shift CNA if she would mind moving them over to the dresser, since she gets up several times a night to go to the bathroom. She told me that the CNA told her that wasn’t in her job description. I shake my head and ask her “What did you say, Bessie?”
She laughs a full laugh and says “Well dear, I told her that she could move them or pick them up off the floor later when I knocked them over. And as you can see” (pointing at her dresser again),”She moved them.”
I begin to laugh, telling her she is one tough cookie, and I would do anything she says. She smiles, telling me she is not a “hard ass” but she knows when people are being disrespectful. She again tells me not to worry about the situation, but I assure her that I am worried because I don’t want her to be disrespected, and I don’t want this person to treat anyone else that way. She asks me to sit down.
I move to sit in the chair by the window and she stops me. She points to the edge of her bed and says “Sit”. So I sit on the edge of her bed. She pulls back the covers, and starts fumbling with her pants. I ask her what she needs, and with a wide grin she says, “I’m not sure if this is in your job description!” I crack up as she tells me she wants to know how her incision site is healing, as she just had several screws replaced in her hip. Within seconds she has her pants undone and is showing me her hip. She tells me she is going blind, and needs someone to tell her how it looks.
After she’s done flashing me (what is it with my luck here?), she asks me what I’m going to school for. She asks me about my experiences in social work so far. She tells me she studied music, and taught it for over 40 years. She tells me that she grew up on a farm just north of Denton, and found Native American Indian artifacts that she had framed. She talks about all the hard work she has done her entire life, and how her mother and father taught her that she deserves respect. She tells me she isn’t sure why she’s sharing all this, but she’s glad to talk with someone who isn’t trying to make her take a shower or go to the dining room.
One of the flower arrangements is roses. She tells me that she grows roses and tomatoes, and needs to get home to them soon; her son cut those roses and brought them for her. She says she has things to do, even if she is blind. I ask her what she can see, and she says that she sees colors and shapes of things. She asks me to lean into the light, and she tells me I have a beautiful shape. She pats my leg, and says she misses her music.
I turn the radio on for her, and we talk about so many things. One of her sons taught music as well, and has a local school named after him. She travelled with her husband to various Indian reservations, and has so much respect for them. She tells me that she played the piano and organ. And then she begins to cry.
She tells me that she was a chaplain for the county jail system for 17 years. She says that she was initially afraid, but that as soon as she walked through those gates the first time, she knew she was where she belonged. She says that if she hadn’t gone blind, she would still be going. She thinks of those men every day, and prays for them constantly. She asks me “Can you imagine being so lost and so trapped at the same time?” I shake my head, saying “You did a wonderful job of finding them.”
She asks me to open her top dresser drawer as she wipes away her tears. She asks me to grab a small box, which she takes from me. Inside is a harmonica, shiny, worn with love. She plays a hymn that sounds vaguely familiar. I am utterly amazed at the breath inside this woman, who is all of 95 lbs.
When she is done, she tells me she can see the music in her mind. She gingerly places the harmonica back in the box, asking me to put it back in her drawer, which I do.
She tells me: “I was always afraid that someone would hurt me in the jail. I had a feeling it would be some young punk who didn’t care for life, and I always wondered if the older men would stand up for me.”
“One day a young punk told me he was going to kill me. I stood my ground, telling him that wasn’t what needed to happen, when a man my son’s age stood up and told that punk to shut his mouth and leave me alone, that he was messing with God’s people.”
She tells me these men who did awful things were hungry for God, and she left the jail that day finally knowing that God was really working through her, putting love on these men’s hearts. She says that some of them called her “Mom” or “Grandma”. She begins to cry again, saying that she misses being there, and wishes she could have stayed longer.
After the hour-long conversation, I bid her a goodbye, explaining that I have to go to class. She asks, “Can you come back to speak with me? I have not had such good conversation since I went into the hospital.” I tell her that I would like that very much. She tells me she is leaving in 4 short days; she is excited. I feel my heart drop. I don’t want her to go, for my own selfish reasons.
The day before she is to discharge, I stop by her room. After knocking, I enter, where I find her lying in her bed with her arm thrown over her forehead. She turns to face me, and the recognition alights her face when I announce myself. She asks me about school again, how my week has been, if I am feeling okay. She grabs my hand as I kneel next to her bed.
“I had a dream about someone, and I think maybe it was you.” She asks me to stand by the window in her room, which I do without question. She squints and then her eyes widen.
“Oh yes, it was you.”
I ask her what the dream was about, and she tells me that the woman was lost, but had a strong voice, and she kept telling the woman to follow the sunshine. She laughs: “I must sound like a crazy woman.” I assure her she does not; I give great consideration to my dreams. I confide in her that I may indeed be lost right now, but I will definitely follow the sunshine, thanks to her. She laughs again, as her eyes fill.
I notice just how small her wrists are, and focus on the visible bones of her fingers. I tell her that I may sound like a crazy woman because I will miss her, although we have just met. This brings full tears for her, and then for me, and I am embarrassed, uncomfortable, yet- I’m not. She begins to laugh again, squeezes my hand, and says “Well we can be crazy together.”
She is anxious to get back to her roses and tomato plants. She tells me to drive carefully, and to take care of myself. I thank her again for her time, the sharing of her words and her life. I am sad to know that I will most likely never see her again. As I’m walking out the door, she says with laughter in her voice, “Oh, and please follow the sunshine!”