I walked into the retirement home, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Dressed up as a life-size Raggedy Andy, big red wig and all, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. I felt vulnerable, as if everyone was looking at me, and indeed my suspicions were validated as every eye in the room had fallen upon my big, goofy, mop-headed face. These were faces that had seen it all: the second world war, some the first, depressions, the dust bowl, the highs and lows of our nation as well as any other nation you could imagine. You name it, and they’ve an incredible story to tell about it.
For the record, I wasn’t a clown, I was a Raggedy Andy. As the legend goes, Johnny Gruelle, a creative author/cartoonist in the early 1900’s, created the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories to lift his daughter’s spirits as she was incredibly ill. After she passed away, he published those stories inspired by his daughter’s homemade doll, and the rest, as they say, was history.
Fast forward to 1983, when Karen Fox receives devastating news from her doctor over the phone, “Your tests are abnormal.” Sitting in her office, with anguish looming over her head, she sees on the back cover of a medical journal, a young girl holding the hand of a physician, and with her other hand, a Raggedy Ann doll. This image held the hope that she so desperately needed in this, her most vulnerable time, and she became inspired, through her adversity, to bring this hope to others in need. Her plan was radical. She wanted to dress up as this image of comfort and compassion, Raggedy Ann, and march into the hospital located across the street, spending her lunch break visiting the patients. After gaining the necessary clearance to do so, she ventured into uncharted territory, and lives began to change, including her own, and eventually mine as well.
Twenty six years later, she stood in front of a Health Professions Association meeting at UCSB, and spoke on her experiences. She didn’t mention the awards, press releases, and accolades she’s acquired over the years, she simply told the crowd about her life, about her mode of aide. She recounted for us the lives of the people she met along her journey thus far, and the impact they’ve had on her life, and as she did so, our eyes met. I instinctively smiled, and she gave a warm grin in return. I applied the following day to become a volunteer in what is now called the Adventures in Caring Foundation, an organization founded by Karen and her husband Simon that seeks to train individuals in care and compassion through books, videos, an immersive workshop, and their own loving guidance. After being trained, I stood on the precipice of the unknown, and began my journey.
As the eyes of the residents in the assisted living facility gazed upon me, two things typically happened. First of all, they would possess a doe-eyed look of wonder at seeing a jolly red giant stumbling through the halls, and secondly, and more rare in those halls, a huge smile would spread from cheek to cheek, and they would, with all their might, lift their arms and wave me over to come talk with them. I was quite glad, and very relieved at such a graceful entrance into the lives of these residents. Many had Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-related ailments, and it was truly painful to see these people who you began to instinctively care about deteriorate before your eyes. It was brilliant though, to have an extended conversation with one of my friends, as he was certain to be currently living in the 1960’s in Anchorage, Alaska. He was a geologist, and was in charge of finding any available reserves of oil or gas in Alaska. He had a wife and two kids, both currently in high school in his mind, and he really wanted to go see them. I cringed in sadness at the comment. Nearly every person I’d met in the halls echoed the same sentiment; they missed their families. Some were visited regularly by their children and grand-children, some sadly didn’t have family anymore, and even more disheartening, some had family that frankly didn’t visit at all, ever.
This was a clear reminder to me of why I was where I was. Their stories were becoming part of my own, and mine theirs. I struggled to get to know them though, many times I utterly floundered, especially as I tried to befriend individuals that couldn’t speak. The silence was uncomfortable and for me, it was pure terror as I sat in that chair, making eye contact in an awkward manner and failing to understand the weak, unintelligible words that were floating out of their mouths. Instead of holding firm, I turned tail and fled shamefully as I thanked him or her for the visit, then thanked my lucky stars for being outside of that room. It was weak of me, but I hadn’t promised perfection when I signed up. There were times that I wouldn’t show up for weeks, masking my emotional struggles by being a busybody and then apologizing to my wonderfully forgiving volunteer supervisor, Shelley. It was in these dire moments that I learned why it was so important to simply be there, not in the colloquial context of being there for someone, but in the way that you are literally sitting there with them, holding there hands, listening perhaps to nothing but the silence of two old friends enjoying each other’s company. Or maybe it’s listening to the mumbled words of someone who is constantly misunderstood, and they know you won’t understand them either, but you still try nonetheless. That shows you care. That shows them that they are worth caring about.
I will end this article with the story of a woman I befriended that I will call Rose, for the sake of anonymity. When I met her, she was already in hospice care, and for those of you that aren’t familiar with what that means, she was nearing the end of her life in a very real way. She was hooked up to many machines that I never dared ask their functions, and was lying gloomily in her bed. The first week we met, I sat down beside her and tried to learn her story. Despite the visible pain it caused her to speak, she mustered up the strength and told me a bit about herself. Rose was obsessed with theatre and dance, and loved performing, especially in ballets. She met her husband, who had passed away several years ago, while performing in a local play after moving out to Santa Barbara. She was an actress, he was a stagehand. They fell in love. They became wed and wanted to start a family, but Rose grew very ill. This became a repeating part of her narrative, and prevented her from both becoming a mother, and as she had always dreamed, a ballerina. Despite this constant malady, I never once sensed bitterness or regret, it was only a tiredness that seemed to befall Rose. It was her story, for better or for worse, and she lived through it. As we were sitting together, the pain became too much to bear, and she fell silent. After a few minutes of silence, I asked her if she’d like for me to leave, to which she replied with a delicate and faint head shake, meaning, “no.” Every week I would visit her for nearly an hour, not saying a word, just sitting beside her. Sometimes we watched John Wayne movies, other times we just sat in silence, occasionally sharing a glance here and there. The weeks grew to months, and one week as I was leaving, I felt the urge to tell her that she was cared about and loved, to which she managed a poignant reply, “I know, you’re here.” A few weeks later, as I pulled up to her room, it was empty. She was gone, without any forewarning there wasn’t a single trace of her left in that room. I didn’t dress up as a Raggedy Andy again for nearly six months.
It wasn’t an instant emotional upheaval, it was more of a slow sadness that overwhelmed me. I knew it was going to happen, it surely wasn’t a surprise, but death never feels anything but abrupt. As I came to terms with it and finally donned my red ‘do once again, I approached it with a newfound appreciation for life and the ability we have to share it with others. Perhaps that’s what we find so captivating about stories, so easily relatable yet wholly unique all at once, and forever immortalized in the hearts and minds of those that hear them.
Rose’s story has been told, but there are countless others waiting to be heard. If you’d like to volunteer your time, I’ve provided a link with more information. Or, if you’d rather show your support with a donation, click the link for details on how you can help.
I’m the one leaning on the wall, top-left.
-Photos courtesy of Adventures in Caring Foundation.