In October of 1984 I attended the Shealy Pain and Rehabilitation Clinic in Springfield, Missouri for three weeks in a successful attempt to heal a ruptured disk in my lower back without surgery. The following is a reflection about an admirable woman I met at a local nursing home that I used for lodging while at the Shealy Clinic.
The Shealy Pain Clinic was not a residential one. Some patients and/or their spouses stayed at local motels, hotels or other accommodations. However, the Clinic had an agreement with a local nursing home that Clinic clients could get breakfast and dinner and also a room for $20 a day. I opted for this choice simply because I needed to save money, being on leave of absence from the University. Not only did I save money, I had a good learning experience. To begin with, I had never spent much, if any, time in a context where infirm or aged people were housed on a long-term basis, and this would be my first exposure to this aspect of life. My only previous experience with older family members, coming from a lower middle class background, was that these old folks were cared for at home until they died. My great grandmother, who died at 92, lived with us until I was eleven. So I found it quite instructional to be staying at the nursing home.
The dinnertime experience, however, turned out to be a transformative one for me. The nursing home assigned the same people to the same four-person table every night, so for the duration of my stay, I was to sit with three infirm and older women at dinner: Mary, Helen and Lucille. Mary was in a wheel chair and seemed to be quite depressed. Sometimes she would not even be holding her head up; other times she would sit with no smile and a gray, blank stare. Helen was a barrel of burdens. She would talk at length about her pains, problems and frustrations, and on top of that, she would fret and worry about how she was ever going to manage things.
Lucille was also in a wheelchair; but I soon learned that there was a majestic spirit residing in that frail body. Lucille was apparently the oldest of the three. The poor dear had rheumatoid arthritis so bad that she couldn’t even lift an ordinary teacup up to her lips. They filled a paper hot cup half full of coffee for her. Her hands were gnarled and swollen. I have no doubt that her level of pain was nearly unbearable. However, once the nursing home attendant wheeled Lucille to the dinner table, one soon forgot about Lucille’s troubles. She would summon up a grand smile, and announce something pleasant, like “What a lovely day!” or “Oh, I hear we’re having pork chops tonight.” Then she would address everyone at the table one at a time in a caring and direct manner. She obviously had built a relationship with Mary. Sometimes, when Mary was very depressed, Lucille would say something like, “Mary dear, let’s see those beautiful eyes of yours. I want to talk to you.” Sometimes after such a remark, but not always, Mary would slowly come back into the world with the rest of us for a few moments. Lucille did her best to make positive comments and compliment people. Lucille also would not tolerate more than a minimal amount of the whining that Helen was so given to. She’d listen to a bit, and then say something like, “Oh, too bad, that’s all too depressing. But what about the nice flowers they have here on the table for us to enjoy.” And sure enough, soon Lucille would have engaged Helen in a brief conversation on a topic that did not include her misery or anxiety.
As for herself, Lucille could barely manage to feed herself, but she insisted on doing so. Each bite took effort to lift to her mouth, but she did it, slowly and deliberately, and she never forgot to pass around a few smiles along the way, although passing the salt and pepper was beyond her ability. She had a family— she sometimes talked about nephews and grandchildren—and occasionally she had had a visitor. Mostly, Lucille was enduring this painful end of life experience by herself. The longer that I sat at that table, the more astonished and admiring of Lucille I became. I actually thought about it when I would go back to my room, and I concluded that God had placed me at that very table precisely so Lucille could be my role model. I must confess that I have such a long way to go before I can even come close to Lucille in terms of carrying difficult burdens and helping others to soldier on bravely. But I do have Lucille in my heart and mind as an inspiration, although it’s nearly certain that she has long since left this mortal coil. I hope this testimony on her behalf does her justice.