Wednesday, July 15, 2009
The Beauty of a "smile"...
I grew up in a small town. We had one local mall which, being a teenage girl, I "frequented" with my friends. My thoughts lately have been drawn to an individual who also "frequented" that shopping center. She was an extremely gifted artist who spent most of her days on a bench in the mall with her chalks and canvas... drawing, etching, and interpreting the world around her. The aspect of her life that drew the most attention wasn't the fact that she spent more time in the mall than I did (which was truly an accomplishment), or the fact that she was an amazing and gifted artist. The most fascinating part about her at the time was the fact that she was quite evidently a biological male. She was very tall and broad in stature, and tried to conceal her budding beard with heavy make-up. She had long hair and frequently wore hats (perhaps - in part - to mask her insecurities or possibly block the incessant stares from passers-by). She always wore dresses with thick tights. I distinctly remember the dresses because they looked like they had come directly from my grandmother's closet. I remember how my girlfriends and I used to giggle about something that we couldn't possibly understand or remotely relate to at the time... both her wardrobe, and her cross-gender manner of expression. I can still remember some of the comments that were made... "Is that a she or a him?" It quickly became a joke and soon she had earned the nicname, "Shim".
Looking back now, what stands out in my mind isn't what we saw when we looked at her... it's all of the things that we failed to truly "see". I was blessed with an experience in my life that taught me this profound principle...
I had scarcely graduated high school and was faced with the daunting task of finding something constructive to do with my time. A job seemed like an obvious solution, so I scavenged the classified ads in the newspaper in an effort to find some direction for my newfound freedom. There were all sorts of listings for new graduates, but my eyes immediately settled on an opportunity for training as a Certified Nursing Assistant offered by a local convalescent center. I responded to the ad and within days I was scheduled for an interview. I didn’t really know what to expect. I had worked through high school at the local Frosty Freeze, but in a town where literally everybody knows one another ~ job interviews are an unnecessary formality.
I dressed up in preparation for the interview and naively made my way across town to the advertised location. Very little could have prepared me for the unique world that existed beyond those doors or for the impact that decision would soon have on my life. I pulled the heavy door open and stepped into the front lobby. An unpleasant odor immediately caught me by surprise. I was unsure of the source, but absolutely positive it was a discovery I didn’t want to make. The walls were a neutral beige color and the front lobby was tastefully decorated. Just beyond the lobby was a hall that led to the residential area.
I immediately noticed a man wandering down the hall wearing flannel boxer shorts and white socks. He wore his shoes over his hands like boxing gloves and if anybody walked too close, he would attempt to clobber them. For the most part, people seemed familiar with the behavior, and diverted to a generous radius around him. Another man and woman aimlessly wandered the hall hand in hand, repeatedly asking one another outlandish questions. Neither one had any answers to offer the other, but they seemed to stick together in a blissful state of confusion.
The secretary interrupted my observation, took my name, and left the room to announce my arrival. Meanwhile, I took a seat near a little old lady who was hunched over in a chair, peacefully resting in the lobby. Her hair was glossy white and her head bobbed with delight as she struggled to look at me through the thick glasses that grossly magnified her eyes. She smiled, and spoke very loud to compensate for an apparent hearing deficit,
“What’s your name?!” she asked.
“Christina” I said.
“Where ya’ from?!” she inquired.
“Montana” I replied.
She perked right up, “I lived in Montana years ago… my husband worked in a mine out there!”
I looked over to observe her response but as quickly as I had asked the question, she had nodded off to sleep. I wondered if she was narcoleptic and decided it would be best to let her rest. I selected a magazine from the coffee table and began to leaf through the pages. Moments later she awoke, interrupting the silence with a loud inquiry,
“What’s your name?!”
“Where ya’ from?!”
“I lived in Montana once… my husband worked in a mine out there!”
For a moment I sat confused, wondering if I had stepped into a geriatric episode of the twilight zone. Before I could figure it out, the secretary returned and escorted me to the nurse administrator’s office. The interview went well and I was immediately offered the position. Something felt right about the opportunity so I readily accepted. As I passed through the lobby on my way out the door, my new friend awoke once again,
“Hey! What’s your name?!”
I didn’t want to be rude so I decided to play along,
“Where ya’ from?!”
“I’ve never been to France…”
I was in a hurry and decided to cut the conversation short. Besides, I was fairly certain there would be other opportunities to set the record straight.
In the weeks that followed, I attended classes where I learned the clinical aspects of the job and shadowed a preceptor who demonstrated the processes and procedures associated with various physical care requirements. After a few short weeks, I had completed the training and was scheduled to work independently.
I showed up for my first shift and waited for my patient assignment. It wasn’t long before I noticed that one patient, in particular, seemed to be the topic of considerable debate. Her name was Lavelle. Every day the assistive staff would show up early and clamor over one another to avoid being assigned to her care. The controversy stirred some curiosity and I decided to personally explore the root of the problem so I showed up early for work the next day. When the bidding began, I volunteered to take the assignment. An astonished silence fell over the group and the look of comedic apprehension was obvious on the faces of my co-workers. A moment passed before the silence was broken by an outburst of laughter. Assigning a new C.N.A. to Lavelle’s care was the equivalent of throwing a tea cup Chihuahua to the mercy of a ravenous Pit-bull. Eager to avoid the “rotten egg”, they readily agreed to the request.
I entered the room expecting to find a monster, and there lay a frail little old woman. She was considerably debilitated, suffering from an apparent musculoskeletal condition that caused significant immobility. Her frizzy brown hair framed the grimace on her stern face, and a large chip in her front tooth created a whistle when she barked commands. “Who are you?” she demanded with a hint of disdain. I introduced myself and explained that I was new. She rolled her eyes, disgusted by the notion of being assigned to a rookie. So it began… the hours that followed would qualify as an initiation to say the least. I struggled through the night in an effort to meet her repetitive demands for assistance. Several co-workers smirked with satisfaction as I wore a path in the tile. Back and forth, I scurried in a vigilant effort to keep up with her expectations. By the end of the night I was completely exhausted. I clocked out and made my way back to her room. I poked my head through the door, “Good night, Lavelle, it was good to meet you. I’ll see you smile tomorrow.” The grimace on her face converted to a stoic expression of utter rebellion. She didn’t say a word, but in the days that followed her actions revealed a relentless determination to run me off. Lavelle had finally met her match. I was equally determined not to give her the satisfaction, and an unspoken challenge ensued.
Each day I would show up and request to be assigned to her care, and each night she did her best to discourage me. I tried everything to make a difference in her attitude. I told jokes and shared humorous stories. Most days I left the facility feeling like a complete fool, but my commitment to the cause was unwavering. At the end of each shift I’d pop my head through the door and remind her of my obnoxious objective, “Goodnight Lavelle, I’ll see you smile tomorrow.” Every night she’d look at me, shake her head, and remain silent.
Several weeks had passed and I had become discouraged in my resolve. I had decided to give it one more try before submitting to her stubbornness. I approached her room with considerable apprehension. As I entered, I noticed something brown oozing from her ear and running down the side of her face. I panicked, unsure of the source,
“Lavelle! Are you okay?”
Convinced that her hearing had been damaged, I rushed to the bedside for a closer look. I noticed something metallic saturated in brown drainage, protruding from her ear canal. I examined it for a moment before realizing the source of the problem. I started to laugh and within moments was hysterical and struggling to regain composure. Lavelle watched with a shocked expression, trying to figure out what the commotion was all about. When I had finally gotten my laughter under control, I wiped the tears from my eyes and asked, “Lavelle, sweetie, whatcha got in your ear?”
She snapped, “It’s my hearin’ aid!”
I started to laugh again, “I don’t think so...”
She reached up with her hand and removed the sticky ball of foil from her outer ear. By this time, I was back in hysterics, overcome with laughter. She looked closely at the object, then began to chuckle with the realization of what she had done. I collapsed onto the bed beside her and we lay there for several minutes giggling over the obvious oversight.
Lavelle was a chocoholic and kept a candy jar full of Hershey’s kisses at the bedside. Her son would dutifully refill the jar each day during their afternoon visit. Apparently, she had mistaken one of the kisses for her hearing aid. By the time I made my rounds, it had completely melted and the chocolate was oozing from her ear.
The incident was a huge breakthrough for both of us. We resigned our challenge to a stalemate. In the days that followed, she and I grew to be quite close. If she attempted to ignore me I would just say, “Did you hear me Lavelle? Maybe you need to clean the rest of that chocolate out of your ears.” It was guaranteed to bring a smile to her face. Before long, she familiarized herself with my schedule and looked forward to my workdays. When I was off, sometimes I’d stop by just to sit and visit. Not long after that, I could elicit a smile by merely walking in the room. If Lavelle was being difficult and I wasn’t working, I’d receive a call at home, “Can you please talk to her?”
Several months had passed since Lavelle and I first met and I was at home when I received the call. Lavelle had passed away in her sleep. I remember feeling the intense loss of a dear friend. I returned to work a couple of days later. Her son, John, was sitting in the empty room, sorting through her things. I stood in the doorway. “You know,” he said, “She really did love you.” I sat down beside him, “I know - I really loved her too.” I put my arm around his shoulder while we sat there on her bed and absorbed the moment. He took my hand and placed some kisses in my palm, then cradled it closed. Neither of us said a word… it wasn’t necessary. We just looked at each other and communicated from the heart.
Before he left, he invited me to attend her funeral and I graciously accepted the invitation. The following Saturday I showed up at the church and scavenged the crowded parking lot for an empty space. I walked through the front door and had scarcely taken off my coat when John rushed over to welcome me, “I want you to meet the family.” I was overwhelmed by the introduction to all of the important people in Lavelle’s life. I met children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, cousins, siblings, and numerous family friends. “You have to sign the guestbook,” he insisted. He walked over by the casket, picked it up, and brought it back to me.
I sat down and signed my name, then handed it back. John took the pen from my hand, then beside my signature he drew a happy face and wrote, “The one who made her smile.” I struggled to contain my emotion. I looked over at Lavelle who finally seemed to be at peace. I hardly recognized her. She was beautifully dressed with a string of pearls around her neck. Her hair, once frizzy, was now softly curled around her face. She looked absolutely beautiful.
I learned so much as I sat there that day and listened to the accomplishments and successes of her life. She was a hard working and sensible woman who had successfully raised several children. As the matriarch of her family, she was committed to taking care of those around her. She had a love and appreciation for the outdoors and took pride in yard work and gardening. She had devoted her time and talents to serving others, both in her church and community.
As I sat and listened to all the amazing attributes of this remarkable woman, the picture came into focus. Of all the challenges in her life, her greatest trial settled on the feelings of uselessness that accompanied being trapped in a body that could no longer meet her expectations for life. Her illness forced her into a state of total helplessness that she irrefutably despised.
I grew to love Lavelle during her greatest challenge and in retrospect, a mere snapshot in time. I wondered how those who never took the time to look beyond the circumstances that adversely affected her life would have responded to her outside of those influences.
There is a profound moral to the story. As I reflect on my experiences with Lavelle, I can't help but think about the woman from the mall. I am reminded of the importance of every relationship in life... from our closest friends, to the seemingly insignificant casual acquaintances and I have come to realize something profound...
Like a photo album, life is composed of a series of “snapshots”. Each experience captures a portion of our existence. Some of the images are good and some are bad, but all of them, once pieced together, become life. My time with Lavelle was based on a mere snapshot of her mortality. Once I made the determination to look beyond that isolated image in time and embrace the entire “album” of her existence, I was able to truly understand my friend.
Lavelle taught me something valuable about people and relationships. She taught me not to judge others by the “snapshots” in life...
Take time to love the spiteful, be generous with the selfish, offer kindness to the cruel, lend understanding to the critic, and forgive the unforgivable. When we take time to look beyond isolated images in life, spiritual truths will finally come into focus.
Somewhere in the world a guestbook, dedicated to the life of someone I love, is neatly tucked away. Inside is a tender reminder of one of the most treasured lessons of my life... neatly noted, with a happy face illustration.
I have been blessed - in a very personal way - with an invaluable opportunity to look beyond that faded "snapshot" of the woman from the mall. My child suffers the same challenges everyday. She faces them with optimism and hope, and the belief that those who cross her path in life will care enough to turn the page, and open their hearts to all of the beautiful qualities and attributes that lie beyond the fleeting "snapshots" of her existence.
The world is full of God's children (old and young), many of whom suffer in bodies that cannot meet their expectations for life. Some are like Cammie or the woman from the mall, while others are like Lavelle - but all of them are struggling with profound mortal obstacles - with a basic need for understanding, love, and acceptance. I believe in the good of humanity... I believe that those who take the time to "see", will be blessed by the beauty of a "smile".