On the day before my mother-in-law’s move to an assisted living facility, I had to meet the nurse supervisor to discuss details of the transfer. When I walked into the unit, a petite woman I’ll call Sallie approached me dressed in stretchy maroon pants and matching knit blouse, with perfect hair and deep maroon lips. Sallie took one of my hands and asked me my name. Then, she motioned me to lower my head and put my ear close. In a conspiratorial, low tone of voice, she informed me that she runs the place, so come to her for anything I need. Sallie disappeared for about ten minutes, then returned, making a beeline for me, and repeated her introduction. “I run the place,” she said in a loud whisper.
The wait was long; the nurse was in a meeting. I sat on a sofa in the well-appointed gathering area. Across from me, a group of four women were sitting in a circle conversing—or at least one of them was. I waved—as I am liable to do to strangers—and the talkative one waved back and asked if I was moving in. She paused, looked at me again, and giggled.
In the meantime, a skinny-as-a-rail lady with pigtails, a crooked gait, one sneaker on and one off, approached the group of ladies and asked, with impaired but intelligible speech, if anyone could help her tie her shoes. Every one of them looked at her like she was crazy, except for the outgoing one, “Dorothy,” who said she would, but she didn’t think she could get down low enough to do it.
I called over to the lady with pigtails and told her I would be happy to help. She walked over, repeating: “You are so nice. You are so, so nice.” I wanted to tell her that my time is coming fast to have my shoes tied for me. I thought about Peter, and the Lord’s prediction about his old age: …when you are old you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you…
She plopped down on the couch; gravity robbed her of a slow, graceful descent. I got down on my knees, because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get up if I bent over. I stretched the shoe she didn’t have on yet and got it about halfway on her foot. This was no Cinderella fit. While encouraging her to push her foot, I slipped a finger in the heel of the shoe. I took a deep breath to hide the pain of her heel pressing against my finger and the shoe, cutting off the circulation. She pushed her foot and I wiggled the shoe, sliding my finger out at the same time, and we did it. We got it on. I looked up. Her face was so close, our foreheads almost touched. She said thank-you with her eyes.
After tightening and lacing her shoestrings, I straightened up. “There you are,” I said. I silently thanked God, because he knew after weeks of stress what would fill up my empty well: Kneeling. Tying shoes. Smiling.
Dorothy came up and began talking a blue streak. She moved into the place one month ago and was eager to give me the low-down. “The food is good,” Dorothy exclaimed. She patted her belly like Winnie the Pooh.
At least five times, Dorothy told me a wonderful story about her farm, which was eight miles due east. She described cattle and chickens and the house she lived in alone for many years.
Dorothy’s face radiated mischief and joy. She said her family tells her that her memory is failing. She laughed: “Well, what do you ‘spect ? I am 87!” She walked toward one of the hallways. “I hope I can remember which room is mine. I’ve only been here ’bout a month.”
Diminished mental faculties and physical deficits have not stopped the laughter. Dorothy found lots to laugh about. The lady in pigtails whose altered fine motor skills kept her from tying her shoes—smiled. Sallie enjoyed her job as greeter—the doorkeeper who served with purpose.
Theologian Karl Barth said: “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” I saw it that day. I felt it. And I laughed—not at them, but with them.
Top right photo via Google Image, Creative Commons License
Lower left photo by Colin Gray, via Flickr, Creative Commons License