Posts Tagged ‘aging’

(The Iris Diaries)

“Visit the orphans and widows in their affliction…” (James 1:27)

A cute little woman sat in her wheelchair with a little pink crocheted cap covering her thin silver hair.  Her wrinkles branched out across her face in delicate designs, and her blue eyes were bleak and icy like her native country of Finland.  “Hello Linda”, I said.  Linda was a bit shy at first and neither of us knew what to say.  Linda’s English was a bit broken, but very clear, and she began to point out some of the Scandinavian art on her walls, and the photo of her deceased husband, and the beautiful grandfather clock on the wall, which was wound up with an old brass key.  Our first visit was a bit awkward, but we agreed to spend time together more often, and I asked if I could address her as “Grandma”.  The old woman agreed with a shy smile.

I had wanted to adopt a grandma so I visited the care home across the street and spoke with the volunteer coordinator.  There were cages with tropical birds in the sunny room with huge windows that day, and a Jamaican woman named Vida came to see me.  She told me that she knew of a woman named Linda from Finland who was very lonely.  After we talked awhile, I signed some volunteer papers.

Grandma missed her home and gardens.  When her family members took her from her home, they told her it was only for a short time but it had been years now.  She did not know what became of her home, and she said she was very old and tired of living.  Many mornings, she said she was sorry that she had survived through the night.

She read many magazines and books and sometimes children’s books with pictures she could look at.  She watched TV shows about world news and church programs.  She seemed very intelligent. But she often forgot how old she was.  One day she was ninety and the next day she was ninety-five.

My sons went with me sometimes and Linda loved it when we called her “Grandma”.  My youngest son was Grandma’s favorite, and he made origami birds and flowers and other artistic things for her to decorate her room with.  She would always say, “He is so clever”.

Sometimes I would bring her little tea cookies and ginger thins and chocolate.  Grandma said the doctors could never get over how she could eat so much and never get fat and how she seemed to have no real health problems aside from arthritis and getting more forgetful and childish as time went on.

One day I arrived and the old woman was flustered, and asked for help in finding her address book which she had lost.  She seemed very upset so I began to open drawers and cupboards looking for it, and found an old address book with a floral design on the cover.  Grandma practically grabbed it with joy when she saw it and began to look through it with a reflective expression.  She was looking for the name of someone in particular, and she asked me to look it up for her. I can’t recall who it was, but I saw that all of the names had been crossed out. I realized that Grandma had put an “X” through the addresses of all her friends and loved ones as they died. The address book was full of dead people.

Grandma deeply missed Finland where she had lived as a child.  Tears would well up in her eyes when she talked of it.  She complained about the Florida heat, and missing the wintery climate where she came from.

She loved to say things in Finnish, and to try to teach me a few phrases. My mother had a friend named Eeva Blauuw who was Finnish, and I asked my mother if the lady might be willing to write to Grandma.  The old woman was so delighted when she started receiving letters in Finnish.

One Christmas, I gave Grandma a beautiful red sweater with pine trees and pine cones and winter motifs on it.  She was very proud of it and wouldn’t take it off for a long time.  The nurses told me they were trying to get her to wear something else, but she just wouldn’t take it off.

Once I gave her a big white teddy bear made out of an old chenille bedspread.  When I offered it to her, Grandma cried with wide eyes, “Oh, I couldn’t!” Her hands were making anxious grasping motions as she said it, contradicting her words. Suddenly her hands shot out and grabbed the bear then she quickly placed it on her lap and rested her chin on its head contentedly.  As we talked Grandma began to stroke the bear and cuddle it, and laid it on her bed and covered it up.  Then she uncovered it and set it in the chair across from her wheelchair, and it seemed that she could not take her eyes off of it.  I asked her what she would name it and she said shyly that she didn’t know.

“What about ‘Snow Bear’?” I asked.

“Oh I don’t know…” said Grandma thoughtfully. “I think I’ll call him ‘Boyfriend.’”  I realized that the bear had become a companion in the old woman’s mind, and that it would soften her loneliness.

One day I came into the room to visit, and found Grandma sitting on one end of her bed with Boyfriend on the other end, and she had little Scandinavian tea cookies spread out on the bed with little napkins as if they were having a party.  When she saw me coming, she looked down at her hands with embarrassment and she said, “I am like a child in many ways.  You know that.”  I smiled and said, “Yes, I know, and that’s fine.”

As I continued to visit Grandma, the old woman seemed to talk more and more in Finnish and less and less in English. “Bilingual aphasia” can cause elderly people to completely forget one language that they have known and revert back to their native tongue.  At first, I would correct her when she switched to Finnish, but after awhile I stopped correcting her and just nodded my head as though I understood when I really didn’t.  It wasn’t important that I understood everything.  It was more important for the old woman to be able to relax and talk because she was so lonely.

Due to a new job, I found that I did not have the time to visit her as often.  When I did come, she kept forgetting me and spoke mostly in Finnish, so then I stopped visiting for awhile.  After a few weeks had passed, I received a letter in the mail.  It was from Grandma, and the handwriting was messy and in Finnish, but it made me sorry that I had not been visiting.

I was deeply touched that Grandma had taken the time with her arthritic hands to try to write to me. I knew then that I had underestimated Grandma’s mental ability to remember me, and that I had meant more than I realized.  I decided to go and visit her again.

Sadly, Grandma had died when I returned to visit her, and I worried that I might have caused her more distress and loneliness.  I was apprehensive to have Grandma’s last letter translated, because it might increase my sadness to know what the old woman was saying.  I’ll bet “Boyfriend” knew all of her innermost thoughts and feelings.  If only I could have talked to him.

OLIVE TWIST ©2012

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In the first sermon that Jesus delivered, He said “Blessed are the merciful.” This true story illustrates how we Christians do a lot of damage when we become too smug about our views, and place our doctrine above the souls of desperate people.

(The Iris Diaries)

I asked a nurse with cold white sterile hands scribbling on a chart to direct me to Opal’s room.  Before walking in, my eyes scanned the name on the brushed aluminum nameplate with apprehension.  I stepped in quietly, wondering what to say to her.

Opal was dying.  I knew it as soon as I looked at the old woman. A sense of urgency rattled me like unexpected thunder. It was dreadfully cold in the room.

Opal was lying thin and pale on her bed. Her face was tight like pale yellow parchment and her whole body seemed to be laboring and exhausted under the cold white sheets.  Tubes were in her nose and needles in her bruised trembling arms. Her lips and eyelids were purple, and the oxygen machine breathed like a slow steam train in a dark tunnel. Her fearful eyes opened like hollow caves when she heard me walk in. It was difficult even to look at her in such agony.

I sat down in the stiff plastic chair next to the bed and drew my shawl around my shoulders.  Focusing on the woman’s frightened face, I introduced myself and asked Opal how she was feeling.  The poor woman began to speak between heavy breaths, with the disturbing rhythm of the oxygen in the background:

“I have emphysema and I don’t expect to live long.  I smoked for most of my life, and that is why I am ill.  I have been in this hospital bed for several months, and I am scared of dying.  I am worried about my soul, and I have been asking how I can find peace with God. I rarely have a visitor since I have been here.”

(Opal has to pause for deep breaths.)  “My brother is a Mormon and he came to see me once, and I asked him what I needed to do about my soul.  He said that I would have to do missionary service for the church.  I told him that I was too sick to do anything, and he seemed very sorry that he couldn’t do anything for me.” 

“I also asked a priest who came down the hall one day to come and talk to me.  He came in and sprinkled some holy water on my forehead and made the sign of the cross over me, and told me that I was saved.  But I knew I wasn’t, because I didn’t feel any different when he left me.  I cried and cried.” (I touched her hand and asked her to rest for a moment, since speaking is exhausting for her. She pauses for a few minutes then continues.)

“The other day, a group from some church came in to visit my roommate and pray with her.  I called out to them to ask them what I needed to do to be saved, and they said I would have to be baptized.  I explained that I cannot be immersed in water, because I would die if I did.   (Opal coughs deeply.)  A man in the group apologized to me, saying that there was nothing they could do for me, and then they continued visiting my roommate and praying with her.  I felt so terrible and hopeless, and I have been so scared.”

Tears came to my eyes as the old woman was talking.  I had learned about Opal from the man who told her she would have to be baptized.  I worked with him at the office downtown. He always wore polo shirts and tortoise-edged glasses and spoke in a heated voice.

I had hoped to find Opal before it was too late.  I told her that the thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus did not have time for any rituals.  He simply asked Christ to remember him when He returned to His Kingdom, and Christ had promised “Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”  I explained that faith is all God requires, and asked her if she would like to pray.  Opal was very eager to, and we prayed quietly together.  Opal asked God to forgive her for everything that she had done wrong, and asked if she could be His child.

I asked Opal if she would like to have some Bible verses read to her, and she said yes.  We talked for a long time and read scriptures together, and the old woman was noticeably comforted.  Her face looked more restful and calm. I offered to come regularly and visit and study the Bible with her, and Opal was very pleased.  We did not get to be friends for very long.

After a few weeks, I went to see Opal, and the nurses said that she could no longer talk or communicate because she had lost oxygen to her brain. I asked to go into the room with her anyway, and the nurses consented.  I had heard that people can still hear others even after they can’t speak anymore, so I stood near Opal’s bed for awhile, twisting the corners of my shawl in my fingers and dabbing my tears. The oxygen was puffing loudly inside the translucent tent where Opal lay serenely.  I spoke gently and reminded her that she was a child of God, and that Jesus had promised to never forsake those who love Him. I left Opal alone in the cloudy tabernacle with God.

The next time I went to see Opal, the nurses said she couldn’t visit and that they couldn’t give any details, because I wasn’t a member of the family.  I knew then that she had left this world, and I was glad that her suffering had ended.  Opal is breathing easier now.

“To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.“(Revelation 2:17)

OLIVE TWIST ©2012

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