Today my kids and I went on an unusual adventure. After church, I packed up my little tribe and hustled them in to the car, explaining that we were heading over to the Vintage Senior Center for a high tea and a little socializing with our elderly neighbors. My 12-year-old son, who is generally amiable and warm-hearted seemed up for the occasion, though he did comment under his breath that old people smell. My 9- year-old drama queen, on the other hand, ran and asked her dad if she could stay at church to clean up, tried to arrange an impromptu play-date and looked for any loophole possible to avoid accompanying us. The baby was on board, but then again, at nine months old, she didn’t have much of a choice.
I dressed the girls in costumes, both for Halloween’s sake and because I thought the residents of Vintage would enjoy seeing a cute baby dressed as Wonder Woman and my older daughter decked out as an 80s style Valley Girl.
So, in we marched to center…a weary mom, a squirrely baby, a reluctant pre-tween in a pink tutu, and my easy-going son. We stopped on the patio and greeted a few seniors who were taking some air. They oohed and ahhed over the baby and we smiled and made small talk before heading in.The center was surprisingly lovely. I was caught off guard by the soothing décor, calming fountains, and tableaus of lush flowers and inviting spaces. The communal area was set up for the tea with tables decorated in harvest linens and china resplendent with tiny sandwiches, fresh fruit, and sweets.
About 20 elderly ladies were assembled for the tea and we jumped in to join the festivities. I made the rounds with the baby, and let her simple charm and utter innocence bless the ladies. And the baby obliged, smiling and giggling, while proudly showing off her two new teeth. She clapped and waved, danced and performed for her audience of approving grannies, reveling in their attention and genuine delight. But babies have limited attention spans, and after a while she whimpered to get down and explore on the ground.
Like lightning, the baby crawled over to the one solo male, sitting alone with a walker in front of him. She climbed up on the side of the walker and to her surprise, it moved. On the cusp of walking, the baby had found a strong sturdy aid to help her take her first steps. I glanced up at the man, hoping he wouldn’t mind that the baby had absconded his only source of mobility, but he seemed enthralled by my wee tyke now making circles with the walker.
He leaned over and said in a raspy voice, “You know, I never thought I would walk again, but I’ve been working hard with the physical therapist to strengthen my legs and I can even do the stairs now. Soon, I should be able to get around with just a cane.”
As the baby made circle after circle with the walker, fiercely determined to take one step after another, the man talked about losing his good friend to a stroke only a few days before. His matter of fact demeanor appeared callous at first, but then it began to dawn on me that in this environment, he was getting used to loss. I scooted close to listen, recognizing the sacredness of an open heart and a lifetime of wisdom being shared.
He told me there were two types of residents at the home, the terminal and those in transition. The transitional folks were there for a set period of time to recover from a surgery or fall while their families could figure out how to bring them home with assisted care, but the others were there until they died. It was their final home on this earth. He said it made all the difference in the world how the residents identified themselves. He said the terminal were hopeless and sad, their spirits bitter and hard. But the transitional residents had a promise of recovery and home, a reward at the end of a long and painful journey.
The man smiled at me and proclaimed,” I am going home again when I can walk. Just like that baby forging ahead, I refuse to end my life here.”
I caught my son’s eye and winked; delighted he was engaged in helping set up the slideshow for the poetry reading. Then we drank tea, listened to Casey at the Bat and enjoyed cupcakes. I saw my older daughter drawing pictures and presenting them to the elderly ladies, smiling and preening in her costume. Eventually, the baby grew tired of her game, crawled into my arms and fell asleep.
As I gathered up my kids to go home, and hugged my new friend good-bye, I asked him if I could come back and play cards with him. He nodded “yes,” excitedly muttering something about gin rummy.
I drove off pondering his statement about the two types of residents at the Sr. Home. I was struck by how profound his observations were and how it also applied to a much bigger realm than just the Vintage Sr. Center.
Our perspective on life, our very identity rests on how we view ourselves on this planet, either as transitional — with the hope of eternal life and a greater kingdom awaiting us, or as terminal — life consisting of a limited time and place, with a beginning and end, and then no more. Even the most decadent senior home in the world would feel like hell, if you looked at as your last step to the grave.
The man knew that to have a life, he had to change his perspective.
Later that night, I asked my son if he enjoyed himself at the senior home. He responded with a decisive, “Yes! They didn’t smell bad at all, but you on the other hand, need to take a shower.”