Several years ago I visited the nursing home around the corner from my church. I felt compelled to encourage the sick and elderly with conversation, Psalms read aloud and prayer. But to my surprise, they encouraged me. I was quite sick at the time. These frail, slow-moving bodies blessed my weak body with their courage and senses of humor. I stopped by room #27 often enough that I befriended a bedridden woman named Billie. Her husband Allan lived in the adjacent room. He was initially checked in for severe depression, but after he recovered, he stayed at Highland Park to be near his wife.
I visited on Sunday mornings before church. I’d knock lightly on Billie’s door. I heard her sweet voice, “Come in, honey,” and Allan would jump up from an armchair at the foot of her bed, smile and give me a hug. Photographs of their early marriage, children and grandchildren quilted the right-hand wall so that Billie could easily see the beloved faces from her bed. I was honored when they asked for a photograph of me and my husband and pasted it on that wall. Billie always asked me to read Psalm 91 from the prayer book — she loved the language of that particular version. And she always looked straight at me and said, “That is why we have nothing to fear.”
God healed me from that sickness, but I haven’t overcome fear. Recently I wrestled with sanity during a month of heightened anxiety while I tried to decrease a medication. But I knew that the roots were old-fashioned worry and emotional myopia. The remedy was to shift my focus from me and the seemingly tragic, and look up, out and around me. Whom could I help? Whom could I serve? What could I immerse my brain and hands into other than writing and editorial work in my home office?
In a city as widespread as Houston, the volunteer possibilities were overwhelming. I decided to start with the familiar. A medical triumvirate sits directly off the interstate exit leading to our house — a Methodist hospital, a children’s hospital and a nursing home. Remarkably, the hospitals did not need volunteers which made me proud of my fellow suburbanites.
I stopped by the sprawling nursing home with a terra cotta-tiled roof and a stained glass chapel by the front door. I filled out a volunteer application in a room with buttercream walls and a sleek black piano. On the back of the sheet of paper, I checked off activities with the residents that interested me, and two caught my eye in particular: writing projects and arts & crafts. My interest in the latter choice perplexed me. I’m comfortable working with words, but I’m not all that crafty.
The enthusiastic Activities Director called me two weeks later. Lo and behold, she needed help with arts & crafts on Wednesday afternoons. She informed me that some of the residents might prefer writing over crafts, but for now, arts & crafts was the primary need. “Could you help the residents paint, make jewelry and things like that?” she asked. I thought about it, shrugged my shoulders and said yes. If nothing else, I can provide comic relief, I thought.
On my first Wednesday, Chastity met me at the main entrance and led me through the Dalí Garden to the Picasso Room, and introduced me to Lael, Barbara and Audrey. An array of wooden objects was spread on top of one table. The women were working on pieces already in progress — butterflies and ladybugs. I selected a square jewelry box. Having zero painting experience, I decided to try and make the box look like its purpose — a jewel. I painted each side of the base and the lid of the box a different color — green, yellow, orange, blue and mahogany wood stain. I dipped the small, skinny paintbrush in a cup of water. I applied the damp bristles lightly to a disc of color. My simple technique was to saturate the grooves of the woodgrain with color, creating swirls of deeper hues over the primary coat. The repetition of this process was soothing — it quieted my frenetic mind.
The women and I talked and laughed as we painted. I felt an instant sense of welcome and camaraderie. Lael applied a coat of silver glitter paint over the blue surface of her ladybug’s wings and proceeded to tell me that she has always been very crafty. She enjoys using her hands. She tended to a garden at her house. Her artistic technique involved an intense focus, determination and confidence. She knew exactly what she wanted to make.
Barbara painted a light coat of the mahogany wood stain on her butterfly’s polka dots. I complimented her atypical color choice and she laughed a bit self-deprecatingly. I assured her of my sincerity and she said, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m having fun.” I looked at my strange little jewelry box and smiled.
As I talked more with Barbara, I learned that when she and her best friend were in their 50s, their husbands died within a week of each other. They grieved, but did not want to do so idly. Her friend suggested that they travel — to Munich, Spain, Berlin, Russia and Turkey. Her favorite destination was Russia, and not just because they served vodka with breakfast. As she described Berlin, she mentioned that her best friend lived there as a child and saw Hitler give a speech in person. I begged Barbara to allow me to help her write these stories. She didn’t see the need, but I’m holding on to the idea. The elderly in our midst are full of rich stories and wisdom that are all too often overlooked as unimportant and commonplace.
We switched to making necklaces for their grandchildren with tiny purple, pink and yellow beads, pink and purple hearts and sparkly purple crosses. I held the long string as Audrey contemplated her pattern of beads and hearts on either side of the cross. We share a love for the color blue, Audrey Hepburn and Mary Jane shoes. Audrey’s memory was slow, but she had an admirable sense of humor regarding this weakness. Trying to remember a grandchild’s name, her eyes closed in brief lament, I waited, and a good minute later her eyes opened in a wry smile and she stated the girl’s name in victory. Every nurse and orderly who walked into the room greeted Audrey and she made them laugh. Her joyful, strong spirit is infectious.
When my allotted time was up, I exited back through the Dalí Garden walking by blood-red roses, a row of white rocking chairs and bungalow-birdhouses. A flock of birds startled into the air. I said goodbye to Deb at the front desk whose turquoise fingernails matched her necklace. I walked out into the dense summer heat and drove home.
The next week, one man in a motorized wheelchair waited for me in the Picasso Room. He stared intently at an incomplete jigsaw puzzle — a snowy Christmas lighthouse scene. Beasley invited me to help him put the puzzle together. He had most of the perimeter of the image finished. Sensing my timidity, he said, “Just try a few pieces. Sometimes you get a lot of nopes. It’s okay.” I did get a lot of nopes. Beasley did not get as many nopes — he is quite skilled at puzzles. He has trained his eyes to see the detached colors: “I call this ‘battleship gray.’” He takes his time, studies the various pieces calmly, and methodically places piece after piece until one fits, which makes his wrinkles unfurl into a warm smile. Eventually, I started to get less nopes, too.
I asked if puzzles were his favorite hobby. He smacked his lips, wiped mucus from his mouth with a tissue and said matter-of-factly, “They are simple. They’re good for the mind. And what else am I going to do?” He did not say this with sadness, just acceptance. He cannot walk, and his eyes are too weak to read books, but he found an activity he enjoys and one that he does well. In that moment my intuition clarified that Beasley and I were not merely doing puzzles — I was learning a significant life lesson right there in the nursing home, the placement of my chair providing a view of the Miró Garden. Whatever I was anxious about could be quieted if I took one thing at a time, did the best I’m able and mustered a little patience and faith until the nopes materialized into yeps. Until the pieces of the puzzle of my life were not so scattered and fractured. Until my eyes could see beauty again. But until then, I could dwell in peace and security, hemmed and hedged in by God’s protection.
The following Wednesday, Chastity left me a note at the front desk:
We are on a movie outing. I pulled out the craft supplies. The following residents need to be picked up from their rooms if you don’t mind. Resident in room #600 (Gail), #708 (Barbara), #212 (Lael).
I meandered the maze of beautiful hallways which looked identical except for different artwork hanging on the walls. I found #600 first. Gail was hesitant to leave her room. “My clothes keep getting mixed up with someone else’s. I’m waiting for a nurse to bring me a marker to write my name in my clothes. I better stay here.” I recognized the aroma of tiresome worry. Looking at her furrowed brow and rigid posture was like looking in a mirror. I replied to Gail as well as to myself, “It might be a while before a nurse can bring you a marker. This problem with your clothes will get worked out. Why don’t you come have some fun for now?” She wasn’t entirely convinced, but she agreed to check out the day’s craft project. I pushed her wheelchair to the Picasso Room, which contains a large aquarium teeming with vibrant, shining fish. Gail’s eyes brightened. I set her up at a table with a clear glass vase, marbles, and a bag of small, smooth stones.
I found Barbara asleep in #708. I almost tiptoed away, but a kind janitor said, “She’s just resting. You can wake her up.” Barbara sat up cheerfully, revealing a John Wayne blanket that complemented the Western decor in her room. I told her that I, too, like John Wayne. “YOU like John Wayne?” she laughed. “I love John Wayne!” I helped her pull on black and magenta sneakers and off we went with the aid of her expert navigation. “It’s nice to be pushed around for once,” she said. “My arms get so tired.”
Lael stated that arts & crafts were better than whatever she was watching on TV. She placed her mug of coffee on the seat of her walker and we strolled the carpeted path slowly. The threesome set their hands to layering marbles and stones in the vases. “Do you have any sand?” they asked. Sadly, I did not. I later put in a request to Chastity who suggested that I could help the residents write words in trays of sand — a combination of crafts, writing and tactile therapy.
Everyone’s layering strategy was fascinating, but what I noticed the most was Gail’s transformation — a smile on her face as she created and chatted with new friends about their favorite flavors of ice cream. She layered her vase with white and gray stones, marbles with green and blue swirls, and shiny pastel beads on top. She looked pleased with her artistry.
Before our two hours were up, Gail went on to make a Denver Broncos door hanger and looked a bit anxious again when the adhesive letters and footballs didn’t fit quite right. Nodding toward prints of Picasso’s art hanging in the room I said, “Your letter placement looks very ‘Picasso’ — not everything has to be in a straight line or linear. And it’s okay to make mistakes — that happens when we create.” Once again, talking with Gail was like talking to myself.
Lael and Barbara went back to their rooms, and I wheeled Gail back to #600. She didn’t mention her lost clothes. Instead she looked around, trying to find just the right place for her craft project. She set it next to a lamp with a granite gray base which went nicely with the colors in her vase. I noticed a gorgeous purple orchid on her dresser and a realistic-looking fake blue hydrangea plant on her desk. Gail knows how to cultivate beauty with her simple possessions and small space. We talked about her love of jazz and John Denver, and I asked how I could pray for her that week. Her sister is dying of brain cancer. Gail and all four of her siblings have diabetes — Gail’s skin was suffering for it. I then realized that her clothes were not the true burden on her shoulders. I promised to pray.
And I promise to keep returning. I set out on this adventure to lose myself and I succeeded — I discovered that by visiting these displaced men and women, offering myself is a humbling form of hospitality. My body is God’s temple, after all, and He is our dwelling place in all generations (Psalm 90:1). And we, made in God’s image, can be dwelling places — shelter — for others.
I confess that the nursing home activities often seem like a waste of time. I don’t initially see the ministry in painting a wooden insect, putting a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle together or making jewelry that doesn’t fit my personal aesthetics. But once we begin creating and making together, I find the collective work of our hands to be simple, meditative tasks that steady me and cheer my friends. The craft projects are childlike joys, and we need the faith of a child, no matter our age. May we set our hands to create all the days of our life.