After a few months of applying to the GAP, GameStop, and even the local TacoChickenHut (for those of you unfamiliar, that is a Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut combined) and hearing nothing back, I finally got a break in my high school job hunt. A buddy of mine, who did maintenance at a nursing home, told me they were looking for an aide in their activities department. The first time I walked into Hawfields Presbyterian Home, I was overwhelmed by the smell of disinfectant and something else… what was it? I couldn’t put my finger on it. Oh yeah, it was urine. “Man up, you need this job,” I thought to myself as I waited for my potential boss and interviewer to bring me back.
The job itself was pretty simple and laid back. There was no paper hat and it came with a fair bit of autonomy, as I was the only activities person on staff in the afternoon/evening. I’d set up the lounge area for the night’s activities and wheel the willing yet ambulation-challenged residents into place, making sure to leave enough seats open for those that could bring themselves and empty space for those that I knew would be sitting on their walkers. The evening activity was usually a show of some kind. A local blue grass band or small gospel choir would come in and entertain for an hour or so. During the performances, I really got to do whatever I wanted. I’d finish any homework I had left or just watch television-- no cable so it was usually a slightly fuzzy installment of Jeopardy followed by Wheel of Fortune. I still remember it was during this time that one of the residents, Miss Shirley, would make her nightly trek to the smoking area whose access path cut through the activities room where I set up camp nightly. The woman was legally blind but I swear she knew the route so well there could have been a blackout in that place and the only light visible would have been the faint red glow of her Newports.
“Hey Miss Shirley you goin’ out for a smoke?”
“You know it, don’t lock me out.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
After all the residents had walked, wheeled, or shuffled their way back to their respective homes, I would break down whatever set was up and return the chairs to their original positions, instilling a peace on the area that signified the end of the day.
On weekends I worked during the day. I was tasked with bringing the activities to the more isolated residents. Some were simply reclusive, while others were physically unable to leave their beds. I really enjoyed this part of my job because there was the freedom of choice. We’d do a puzzle or bounce a balloon around the room for some semblance of physical activity, but my personal favorite was bringing my guitar into work and making the rounds with a song or two for each of them. I quickly became known as the kid with the guitar, and even performed a few times during the evening activity, either with the scheduled band or by myself.
Tip to any would-be performers reading this: a nursing home is the perfect place to get used to performing in front of people. They are happy you took the time to be there for them, and if something isn’t going right they will tell you in a semi-polite way so as not to discourage your efforts. More than one time I was stopped in the middle of said efforts to be informed that my instrument was too loud or they couldn’t hear me in the back. Some lady even came up to me after a song and said, “Baby, that wasn’t very good, but thanks for trying.”
One night I came into work just the same as I always did, radio blasting and me wailing right along with it. I parked, buzzed myself in, and waved hello to the night nurses and CNAs. I looked on the schedule. A preacher was coming to give a talk; alright, a typical audience set-up. Once the room was ready, I made my rounds, getting those from the dining hall I knew would want to attend and extending the hopeful yet futile invite to those who would rather stay in their rooms. Everyone was in place, the main event had his podium, I asked him if he needed anything else, he said no, so I retired to the empty activities room. Miss Shirley had her smoke and I was in the second half of Jeopardy, not doing very well, when an unfamiliar face peeked around the open doorway. She was short, blonde, and clad in scrubs.
“Are you Brad?” The question was more of a statement with the hint of a request at the end.
“Yeah, what can I do for you?”
“My name is Diane. I don’t think we’ve met.”
“No, I don’t think we have. Nice to meet you, Diane. Is there something I can help you with?”
“Actually, yes. This may seem like a strange request, but would you mind singing for one of the residents? One of the other nurses told me you would be willing.” She seemed perfectly at ease, almost like she asked it of everyone.
I can admit that I like to show off sometimes, so usually I jump at the opportunity to perform for anyone. “Sure what room are we going to. What song would they like to hear?”
“Well, here’s the thing, the song is for Mr. Jeffries and he wants to hear Amazing Grace.”
Mr. Jeffries? Why can’t I place his face? God, I am horrible with names, once I see him I’m sure it’ll click. I mean, this is a big place, and he could be one of the folks that still pretty much takes care of himself. Oh no, she’s still talking, pay attention fool.
“He isn’t doing so well. He hasn’t been well for quite some time and we really don’t know if he is going to make it through the night. He keeps muttering and asking for Amazing Grace. We assume that he is wanting to hear the song. I would sing it for him, but it was done for my dad’s funeral and I know I couldn’t get through it without bawling. Do you think you could help us out? Do you know the song?”
Now, I grew up in the church. I’d known Amazing Grace by heart since I was in elementary school. Of course I could do it. “Yeah, I know the song. I’d be happy to sing it for him. Let’s go to his room.” As we made our way down the hallway, it seemed darker than normal. Only a couple of doors were open and not much light was emanating from any of them. We neared Mr. Jeffries room, the only one with any obvious source of light: a lone bedside lamp beside a plaid patterned bedspread tucked around a pale man with sunken cheeks, closed eyes, and partially opened mouth. Diane turned to me before I entered and whispered, “Good luck.”
Walking into that room was like stepping into a sauna, it was so hot. How was he standing it lying there in his flannel pajamas? I pulled a chair up to the bed and stared at this man wondering what he had been like before coming to this place. Was he married? I figured he had to have family considering all of the non-standard room décor. The bedspread, the television, all obviously brought in by someone. How often did his family visit that they weren’t here right now? Why was I, a stranger, asked to sing for this man?
Pushing these thoughts out of my head as quickly as they’d arrived allowed me to focus on the task at hand. “Mr. Jeffries, Diane tells me that you want to hear Amazing Grace. Is it okay if I sing it for you?” With an almost imperceptible nod, I was given permission. Before I got the first note out, I looked down and noticed that his hand was at his side in a position suggestive of a handshake. I reached down, took his hand, which closed around mine with a far greater strength than I would have suspected from such a feeble looking person. The grip reminded me of my own grandfather, strong beyond years, and left rough from past calluses, no doubt a permanent gift from years of manual labor. The song became secondary to the thoughts in my head about who this man is, was, and could be. I don’t remember starting or finishing, but eventually the song ended and I entered back into my own head and reality. I looked down at Mr. Jeffries and said, “I hope you enjoyed it sir.” At a volume hardly louder than a whisper Mr. Jeffries uttered, “Thank you.”
I released his hand and rose from the chair. As I turned, I realized that Mr. Jeffries and I were not alone. Not only had Diane stayed for the song, but a small gathering of employees had materialized. Diane thanked me for what I had done and amongst the cordial compliments from the random spectators I excused myself. As the weight of the situation set in, a familiar sting at the corners of my eyes was beginning to cloud my vision and I didn’t want to embarrass myself. Thankfully, I made it back to the activities room and shut the door before the tears began to fall. What was I just part of? Did I seriously just try and fulfill a dying man’s last wish? I pulled myself together and dried my eyes, making sure to check the mirror for any redness that may have given me away. The lounge had already emptied by the time I’d arrived to finish out my shift. After restoring the place to its original tranquility, I turned off the lights, locked up the activities room, and headed for the door. That night, as I drove home, the radio wasn’t playing.
About a year later I was in college. I had found a job as a CNA and after giving my two weeks’ notice at the nursing home I made one last round to say goodbye. As I was heading to the entrance, I passed the lounge I was so familiar with to see a suspendered Mr. Jeffries sitting in one of the more comfortable chairs, watching a movie on the big screen. He looked at the doorway, noticing me, and gave the universal greeting of older southern gentlemen. Without completely lifting his arm from its resting spot, an extension of the wrist, first, second, and third digits acknowledged my existence. Not quite a friendly hello, but also not a complete ignoring of my presence. The same greeting would have been used if we had passed each other on a back country highway. With a smile, I returned the gesture and continued out the door. On my way back to school, I don’t think my radio had ever sounded better.