From my earliest memories, I could recall the echo of my late grandfather, “If you help dig someone out of their troubles, you’ll always find a place to bury your own.” He was a simple man, the salt of the earth, but he possessed a wisdom unknown to most. He spent his last moments on earth at the Rose Hawthorne Home; a health care facility for terminally ill cancer patients. I was sixteen when I began visiting him. Through the exploring eyes of a child, I quickly discovered he was not the only person to enjoy such precious knowledge.
No different from other nursing homes, the Rose Hawthorne was a safe haven for the elderly. Its suffering patients were soothed by the gentle hands of a caring staff, while the home depended on community donations of food and money. During my visits, however, I also found that there were other compassionate souls willing to give something far more valuable. They gave their time, volunteering to help in the fight against another devastating disease called loneliness. The exchange between the patients and volunteers was both touching and humbling. To my surprise, I couldn’t tell who benefited more.
Within The Rose Hawthorne, there was a peace most people could have only dreamed of. Removed from the rat race of society, the tranquil surroundings were absolutely breathtaking. Hundreds of green plants filled the ward, while a handful of birds chirped in harmony. The sun’s rays engulfed the interior of the building and the same sweet melody seemed to play over-and-over on some hidden hi-fi. Sometimes, while my grandfather snored, I listened carefully. There were always the muffled sounds of laughter.
Although torment loomed over each bed and death lurked behind every corner, I discovered a silent bliss. Each patient had reached the end of their life’s path and most were finished with the denial, the negotiating with God- the anger. There was no battling the inevitable. Instead, the snickers of a friendly card game could be overheard, or the whispers of some treasured conversations detected. Armed with decades of experience, peering into the patients’ eyes was like gazing into a history book. For those who dared to open the cover, lengthy discussions usually revealed years of hard lessons and the wisdom achieved. The teachers were old. They were sick and tired, but they had more to offer than anyone I ever met. Unfortunately, in the Western Hemisphere, the elderly were often cast aside as nuisances. Even at sixteen, I knew it was an ignorant assessment.
As the weeks progressed and my grandfather got worse, I introduced myself to many of his neighbors. Some spoke of their children and of the generations to come. Most, however, preferred to dabble in the past. I enjoyed those talks the best. I learned so much about life at the turn of the century:
One frail woman, each winter, strapped on ice skates and commuted across the Taunton River to work every morning. Her brother, during the Great Depression, kept his family alive on a staple of potatoes. One of the quieter men boasted of the fortune he made during Prohibition, while another reveled in the memory of the hurricane of 1938. As if he could still see it, his eyes went wide, “Many a homes were wiped out back then, but the folks in the North end came together like nothin’ I ain’t ever seen since!”
From bed-to-bed, there were endless stories of WWI and WWII. The graphic and brutal details of combat actually caused me several sleepless nights. Awestruck, I also learned that the families who remained on the home front suffered terribly in their own silent ways. Every soul shared in the war effort and the labor was considered hard, but righteous. Occasionally, even politics were brought up. The consensus was, even years ago, integrity was never considered an actual criteria for the profession.
Some spoke of the day-to-day life. There were trolleys that ran from one side of the city to the next and boys who thought nothing of stealing a free ride. There were steamboats that paddled down the river, while horses transported those with land legs. All meals were cooked at home and children never dared disrespect an adult, while expecting to keep all their teeth. And speaking of teeth, “The dentists and medical doctors back in them days were no better than the vets that castrated bulls.”
I marveled at the raspy whispers of Lizzie Borden and her infamous axe. Many of the patients still regarded her as the Devil incarnate. Yet, when I asked, “Do you think she did it?” I received only grins for answers. History disclosed that Old Lizzie was found ‘not guilty’ for the gruesome hacking of her parents and the crime was never solved. Looking past the grins and into the eyes of those I asked, however, it was almost as if they knew the truth and weren’t talking. Then again, with a deeper look, it was as if they knew the truth about everything.
Afternoon conversations included the value of the dollar and all one could buy when, “It was worth something.” Verbal pictures were painted of men peddling their goods. Blocks of ice, vegetables, everything was bought and sold in the street. “Shoot, you could get your scissors sharpened, buy a new set of flatware or a Sunday hat without ever leaving your doorstep,” one woman bragged. Radio programs left more to the imagination than the invention of television. Most could even remember exactly where they were when the Titanic sunk or Elvis Presley gyrated his hips for the first time.
After three months, I considered each one of them a genius.
It was a cold March morning when my grandfather decided he had endured enough pain. Two days before his departure, I visited for the last time. While making my rounds, many of the patients thanked me for my time and compassion, as if they knew they would not set eyes on me again. It seemed silly. If I’d done anything, then I had already been paid back tenfold. Though there was no exchange of money, the gifts I received each visit were worth so much more. If time was all I needed to give, then it was the best investment I’d ever made.
I bid farewell to my grandfather that afternoon, never realizing that it was actually goodbye. Stepping into the brisk sunset, I had no doubt that my grandfather was right. It was so clear. From here on, any time I was in search of answers, I needed only to visit a haven for elderly souls. Although the teachers of forgiveness and acceptance dwelled within the company of angels, they were equally happy for the company of youth and the opportunity to share their knowledge.
My grandfather’s final gift was so valuable it could have never been wrapped. He had introduced me to the greatest natural resources on earth. Each time, when I’d found one of the teachers generous enough to reveal their thoughts, I considered myself fortunate. Better yet, when I’d found another kind enough to open their heart, I considered myself blessed.
I might have lent a helping hand to some, but it was the stronger, gentler hands extended back to me that would have shocked the world.