Sometimes Valentine’s day stinks. Maybe it’s just because the world thinks everyone needs a date and romance or they’re to be pitied, but I’ll be honest. I fell into that trap one year. (Hey, I was young.) It turned out to be one of those dates that absolutely turned a corner in my life.
Valentine’s day 2004–my boyfriend at the time worked at a fancy restaurant and needed to work till after midnight. I’d become a little stir crazy hanging at my apartment, so I wanted to get out. There weren’t many friends without plans that night, nor were there many fun “solo” options.
But then I decided on a way to spend Valentine’s day that ended up being monumental in my life. Why hadn’t I ever done this before? I quickly Googled my idea and located some possibilities on a map. After jotting down the most promising addresses, I dug out an appropriate-colored Valentine’s day outfit and got ready for my date. I even curled my hair, if I remember right.
As I drove to my first stop, which ended up being my only one, I mentally prepared some questions to keep the conversation going. After all, conversations with a total stranger could be really awkward. I was going for no dead-air time that night. When I pulled up to my destination, I almost turned around and went home. Maybe my idea was stupid.
But no. There was a draw to it, almost a necessity, that pulled me toward it. I’m pretty sure, in hindsight, that God gave me this idea and then prompted me to follow through. He has great ideas, let me tell you.
So finally I approached the double doors of Sunset Nursing Home and entered. After an awkward explanation of my plans at the front desk, I was led down a linoleum hallway with those flickering halogen lights overhead.
Wow, super depressing place to call home.
“Which ones don’t get a lot of visitors?”
The middle-aged woman in scrubs held her pencil poised in the air, blinking at me, as if I’d asked where the roller coasters were. “Oh honey.” She shook her head. “That room on the end, that one and number 414 on the right side, those are the only ones who have had visitors since I started here.”
In other words, take my pick.
I wandered down the hall. Lord, pick for me. You know everyone in here. Direct my steps. I walked into one of the rooms and the sole tenant, a bent-over woman with more warts than hair, didn’t even turn her head from the blank wall that had captured her attention. Her head lay on her right shoulder, sometimes bobbing up. I knelt in front of her, wondering how on earth I’d explain my presence in her room. Very random stranger just walking in and…
But then I met her gaze. I searched her eyes till she returned my look, and I smiled at her. Nothing. Skipping the explanations, I charged right in.
“So… what’s your love story?”
Life flickered behind her eyes and she shifted her head away.
No wait, not away. Toward a picture on her dresser. It was a young couple, the man in a Navy uniform. I held it in front of her and repeated my question. “So. What’s your love story?” In the broken speech of poor health and old age, she gave me a picture of how she met her man. I’d never heard a love story told with more personal, heartfelt emotion. That’s something no romance author could capture.
I left her room with my heart trembling, the story vibrating through my brain. I visited another room and repeated my question.
Not every resident responded—some could not—but the stories I heard were amazing. I heard of a girl who struggled to wait till marriage, a young man who learned to swim just to meet a girl, a new mother afraid of the growing distance in her marriage… All stories I could have heard from friends my own age. But all uniquely of a different era. Drive-in movie theaters, war separations, flapper dresses and silver-trimmed convertibles.
I went home and stayed up till 3am writing down as many stories as I could remember. I was enthralled, and I didn’t want these stories to simply disappear as if these people hadn’t existed. I never did anything with those stories except to read through them myself, but that night launched me into two new passions. First, turning true stories like these into novels. Second, noticing the people who went unnoticed.
It floored me how few visitors those residents had. And it floored me how a simple question lit up their faces. You’d have thought they were movie stars being interviewed. Behind the placid faces and dull expressions lay people who thought and loved and struggled. How did so many people miss that? All we see now is the aged body too tired to live the busy lives we find so important. The weak eyes, and forgetful brain. Warts. Wheelchairs. Vacant stare. But it’s not who they are, any more than we are defined by what people see of us in the first two seconds of meeting. That day changed my habit of snap judgments, and it taught me to really see each person, the way Jesus saw the Samaritan woman at the well, the lepers, and poor fishermen. He overlooked no one, saw value in everyone.
Even if nothing comes of my novels, and no one reads them but my friends, God used me to open up these stories hidden inside lonely people.
Below is the poem that got me thinking about this particular experience. It’s been flying around the internet lately, so I’m reposting it here for you all to read. The author is an anonymous old man, from what I can tell, and the poem was found after he’d died in a nursing home.
Who around you is often invisible? Maybe you’re the person that should “see” them.
Cranky Old Man
What do you see nurses? . . .. . .What do you see?
What are you thinking .. . when you’re looking at me?
A cranky old man, . . . . . .not very wise,
Uncertain of habit .. . . . . . . .. with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles his food .. . … . . and makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice . .’I do wish you’d try!’
Who seems not to notice . . .the things that you do.
And forever is losing . . . . . .. . . A sock or shoe?
Who, resisting or not . . . … lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding . . . .The long day to fill?
Is that what you’re thinking?. .Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse .you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am . . . . .. As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, .. . . . as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of Ten . .with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters .. . . .. . who love one another
A young boy of Sixteen . . . .. with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now . . .. . . a lover he’ll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty . . . ..my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows .. .. .that I promised to keep.
At Twenty-Five, now . . . . .I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty . .. . . . . My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . .. With ties that should last.
At Forty, my young sons .. .have grown and are gone,
But my woman is beside me . . to see I don’t mourn.
At Fifty, once more, .. …Babies play ’round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . My loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me . . . . My wife is now dead.
I look at the future … . . . . I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing .. . . young of their own.
And I think of the years . . . And the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old man . . . . . . .. and nature is cruel.
It’s jest to make old age . . . . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles .. .. . grace and vigor, depart.
There is now a stone . . . where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass . A young man still dwells,
And now and again . . . . . my battered heart swells
I remember the joys . . . . .. . I remember the pain.
And I’m loving and living . . . . . . . life over again.
I think of the years, all too few . . .. gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact . . . that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people .. . . . .. . . open and see.
Not a cranky old man .
Look closer . . . . see .. .. . .. …. . ME!!