If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed.
Thai woman (photo: Eric Montfort, flickr)
I'm a person who loves to hear stories and so, during the past two months, I've taken the time to listen to the stories of people I've encountered at the rehab center where my mom is staying. You could call them flash stories, really, the type of thing you can listen to in a five minute conversation in the hall. Now, as I sit here at home, these stories, no matter how small, have lodged in my mind.
On the way to Mom's room, I often paused at the "wheelchair brigade" - as I liked to call them - people placed near the front desk for observation because they were prone to wandering if left in their rooms. I would stop and ask their names and then greet them and ask how they were doing each day as I passed. Most of these people didn't have much in the way of stories. However, one old man, who I later found out was recovering from pneumonia, shared bits of stories. On bad days, all he would say was "Hep' me please, can't someone hep' me please." On better days, I found out that he was originally from eastern Kentucky, that he grew up on a farm, and that his name was Sammy.
Sammy's room was next door to my mother's room and you could often hear his voice through the wall calling, "hep' me please." My mother would smile, saying, "there he goes again." Maybe it made her think of her own grandfather who her parents cared for in his last days. The last day I was at the rehab center, whenever someone passed Sammy's open door he called out, "I seen you passin' there. Can't you hep' me please." Around suppertime, several family members came by to visit. I spent some time talking to one of his grandsons and learned that Sammy had once owned a lucrative business that specialized in painting water towers. Sammy was still a strong-looking man and I could picture what he must have once been. "He's got lots of stories," his grandson told me. "Give him a chance and he'll talk your ear off." I would have liked having my ear "talked off," however, my mom was jealous of my time and wouldn't have understood.
Also on the last day, I noticed a woman standing in the hall. She stood there so long that I finally stopped to ask if she was okay. "Not really," she said. She was waiting in the hall while her husband's roommate was getting an x-ray from the mobile x-ray unit. Her husband was 65, had cancer, and had come here from the hospital where he had been in the ICU for several weeks recovering from the side affects of chemo. He had fallen twice since he'd been at the rehab center. The first fall fractured his hip and he hit his head in the second, producing a sizeable knot. "Wow," I said. "Why isn't he in the hospital?" "Well," she answered, "he was, with his hip, but he got sent back here in a few days." At the time, that didn't make sense to me, but now I realize that it must have been because of the risk of getting a hospital-acquired infection. His wife, who was clearly younger, seemed utterly exhausted. When I asked if she could stay there to make sure her husband didn't get out of bed, she looked sad and said in a soft voice, "I can't. I work." "Can I give you a hug?" I asked. "Yes," she said, and so I did. "Say a prayer for me," she asked before I walked away. I promised that I would, even though I don't pray often. Still, the hope of prayer is not anything I would take away from someone at the end of her rope.
Why are stories important? In North America, older people are often shunted off to nursing homes or isolated in their own homes. They are invisible and few people take the time to listen to them - we're all so busy. I wasn't raised that way. My mother's "people," as they say down in Kentucky, valued seniors. I can still remember listening to stories told by grandparents, great-aunts and uncles and uncles and aunts.
I've also spent time living in native communities in the Canadian North where elders, as seniors are called there, will tell stories for hours to anyone who will listen. As long as they can speak, people have stories to tell. As Ursula K. Leguin says, stories are what make us human. They are one of the last things that old people lose and one of the last things that give them dignity. So, next time you have the chance to hear an older person tell a story, pause and listen.