A Lesson In Friendship

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I’m going to break the number one rule of blogging, that is to keep posts short. But, hey, this is my blog and sometimes it takes more than a few paragraphs to make a point. Below is a story I had written for my Hyde Park Living pet column a year ago (with permission). It has special meaning to me and I wanted to share it. (I’ve changed my friend’s name.) Maybe it will inspire you to make friends at a nursing home too.

It was close to dinner time last Sunday, and, as has been the pattern for many a Sundays over the past several years, I was sitting beside a man who I’ve grown to care about very much. We weren’t really talking about anything of great substance. Mostly actually, I was filling him in on my weekend, describing Barnaby’s newest phrase and reminding him of all the people who care about him. Love was surrounding him on that day and for the past several weeks. The birthday cards placarded on walls and shelves in every space, and a flower bouquet from his son and grandsons resting by his bed, each represented someone special in his life. Someone who, in his 77 years, has given him purpose.

Chester, my Alexandrine Ringneck Parakeet, came with me to visit residents in a local nursing home.When I arrived, Bill was sitting in a wheelchair in his room at the nursing home, his back was to the television and his head was propped on one hand, looking down toward the floor. His other hand lay still on his lap, motionless since a stroke many years ago took its mobility away. A smile came to Bill’s face when he saw me at his door, and in that moment, it was vividly clear why giving up an hour of my time was so important.

I was asked to write about animals and seniors this month, and it got me thinking to when Bill and I first met. How could I forget?

Years had past since I first walked down that hallway. Actually, Chester (my oldest bird) and I came together. We had come to visit with people who were living there. Room by room we went, asking residents about their lives. Seeing Chester prompted many memories of beloved pets, described to me in lovingly terms as one would only use to describe a best friend. There were a lot of smiles, I remember. And, there was this voice. It was loud enough to hear several rooms away. ‘The bird lady is here, the bird lady is here,” a woman yelled, not so much for the attention of others but more just her being excited about having a visitor.

To live in that area, you aren’t well enough to live without assistance. Most are in wheelchairs, many need help to do the most basic of skills. Few will ever experience eating in a restaurant or shopping for a sale again.

It’s hard to put into words how it makes you feel when you know, even for a few brief moments, you brightened someone’s day. I knew we’d return again. And we did, but the next time the woman with the voice was no longer there. She had been replaced with someone else. All of the rooms actually were home to new faces.

Our second visit was much different. This time around, staff had wheeled all of the residents – at least those who could leave their beds – into the main room where Chester and I could talk amongst them. I’m not sure how many seniors there were but I remember the area looking pretty full. If they’d been twenty years younger, they probably would have been catching up on the latest gossip or their grand children, but instead, they sat in silence, each in his or her own thought. If they weren’t asleep, their eyes were transfixed on something. There was no laughter, there were no smiles.

An activity staff person pulled the wheelchairs together in a sort of semi circle while I took Chester out of his carrier. And, as quick as they had fallen asleep, they were now alert. They wanted to talk, not just to me, but to Chester. They told me about their pets. They wanted Chester to know he was awfully pretty and sweet. He had a really long tail, one woman commented. I knelt on the floor with Chester in my hand leading the conversation, sometimes having him step up onto a walker, a wheelchair or a knee. It was a beautiful thing to watch their interaction with him. The fear they may have had toward a bird when they were younger was replaced with a gentle compassion. Chester sensed that. (I was extremely watchful and careful of his body language and anyone who may potentially scare him.)

Bill was behind me on that afternoon. His wheelchair had feet rests to hold legs that could no longer take him where he wanted to go, and a piece rising above the back to support his head. One arm was resting on his chair, the other lay across his legs, its hand curved slightly at the wrist. He was quiet but he was very focused, his eyes locked on a green bird perched just beyond reach, the sign of someone acutely interested. When I turned and spoke directly to him, I saw in his smile a genuine tenderness.

Chester too must have felt something because he stepped onto Bill’s hand without hesitation. I watched as this man of few words suddenly had a lot to say. I half held my breath as Bill raised his hand to his face, rubbing Chester’s soft body against his age worn skin. When Bill’s unsteadiness caused Chester to flutter to the ground, I picked Chester up, returning him to the human perch that was a place of comfort. “I’m sorry Chester, I didn’t mean to do that,” Bill told him.

As I asked Chester to go into his carrier, Bill turned his attention to me. “Thank you for giving me a friend,” he said. I smiled back and walked out the door, fighting off the tears until I got to my car. This time around, we were back in a week, and just about every week since (although I had to stop bringing Chester with me about a year ago).

It was wonderful to see Bill’s response. Research gives scientific record of the benefits of animals on seniors, but I didn’t need the studies to know how much good Chester’s visits were for Bill. Without even realizing it, he began using his hand more to hold out seeds. He was talking and interacting more. His expression when he saw Chester spoke volumes for what any words could say.

Just this month when I wanted to wheel Bill outside, I asked about his feet rests that were missing. Staff had removed them from his chair because he was using his feet. Now that was reason to smile.

Life gives us so many lessons from which we shape who we want to be. They teach us about what is most important and leave us a little bit wiser in the end. Bill isn’t the only person to have grown from our visits.

The past several years have taught me about the value in simple pleasures like the satisfaction of knowing you made the world a better place for one person. They’ve shown me the beauty in unconditional love, and gave me an even deeper appreciation for the companionship of pets. If you have a pet, then I’m sure you too have an understanding of what I’m talking about. Why not share that love? It very well may be the best gift you can give.

NOTE: Surrounded by children and grandchildren, Bill celebrated another birthday a couple months back. He is doing incredibly well these days. It’s great to see.

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