It was easy. It was easy just to stand there and hold his head up. He often said to me, “This is what you went to college for?” I’d smile and answer, “Yes, and I even have a Master’s degree.”
Cliff was a participant in the senior adult day program that I manage in Shelton, WA, a small rural town whose economy is based on forestry and fisheries. Cliff had lived in Shelton his whole life. He’d operated a garbage service there. His grown kids worked in construction and shellfish canning. He was a little crusty around the edges, but we loved him. Sometime in mid-life he’d had a stroke that seriously disabled him. His wife had cared for him for many years and after she passed away his daughter cared for him. Somewhere along the way he’d started attending an adult day program that is designed for seniors with conditions that keep them from being independent.
Cliff’s whole left side no longer worked and he was stuck in a wheelchair. His mind was still sharp as a tack, though, except when medications or fatigue got to him. He always liked a joke or a story or a comment that was a little risque. (Maybe he liked them a lot risquÈ, but we never went there.) And he wondered about this work that I did, often asking why I was working here if I had a college degree and all that experience.
A couple of years before, I’d left my best-paying high-powered job. I’d left it to return to my parents’ home so that I could spend time with my Dad who was on that never-ending downward spiral caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Mom wasn’t sure I should come because it was so stressful to take care of Dad. And I agreed, it was stressful, but a different kind of stress than I had experienced managing a training program for a big company. Eventually Dad needed to be moved into a care facility and Mom passed away and I ended up working for Senior Services. That’s how I arrived in the presence of Cliff. Cliff who wondered what I was doing helping “old half-baked” people (his words) eat their meals, read the newspaper, go to the bathroom, tell a few stories, and crack a few jokes. Good question.
But it was easy. It was easy because I was one person connecting with one other person who needed me. And this happened with other seniors in the program,too. They needed me so that they could go on with their lives with dignity. They needed me to celebrate their rich and varied experiences in the past and to affirm their lives in the present. Sometimes they just needed me to help them do simple daily things.
Like the day lunchtime arrived and Cliff was hungry. The hot lunch from the Senior Center smelled good. But for some reason that day, Cliff kept sliding down in his chair and leaning to the left. My assistant and I repositioned him in his wheelchair, propped up his left side with pillows, did all we could to keep him upright, but he just kept sliding and leaning and couldn’t eat his lunch. So I asked if he wanted me to hold him upright and he said, “Yes, please.”
I stood there, propping Cliff up so that he could eat his lunch, wondering to myself, “What am I doing here?” And I knew. It was easy. It was easy to help this man who had lived so long and done so much and today just wanted to eat some lunch. He needed me and I could help him. It didn’t matter who I was, what my resume said, where I’d come from, how much education I had, or how much money I made. It didn’t matter if I’d reached my potential, if I was self-actualized, if I’d reached the pinnacle of success. It didn’t matter that this job is not valued by society. It did matter to the families who sent their loved ones to a safe and positive place so that they could have a break. But most of all it mattered to Cliff. He wanted to eat lunch.
Now, Cliff is gone from this earth, but I still remember him. I remember him as the person who helped me discover how easy it was to let go of all the reaching and striving that had driven me for so long, and just stand still serving another human being.
Copyright (c) 2006 Randi Moe