Chronicles of the Agape House: Crabbit Old Woman

         Just like teachers, healthcare workers are told that it’s dangerous to have favorites, but I think it’s inevitable. Surprisingly, my pets seem to be the spunky, “non-compliant” ones. I knew as soon as I met Betty that she fit the bill . . . a defiant and rude priss-pot.
       It was of utmost importance for Betty to maintain her regal appearance at all times.  Her bushy wig was always in place. The staff couldn’t figure out how she kept it in place even when she slept. Her bright red lipstick and painted eyebrows were artistically applied as soon as she woke in the morning, and her ear-rings, matching pennant and necklace were all in place before breakfast.  
     To the naive observer, she appeared relatively well, but she had an aggressive cancer that she labored to keep hidden.  She had a strong opinion about everything and although she was demanding, she was never cruel. That is until she graduated to the dreaded stage of grief-- anger.
     Loudly barking orders from her chair, she didn't mind throwing a hairbrush or cup in your direction to make a point. Nothing we did even came close to pleasing her. In fact, the more we tried to caudle and reassure, the more hostile she became. 
     The staff quickly grew tired of dodging, and then, sweeping up broken glass, so I gave each a copy of the following poem.

Crabbit Old Woman
What do you see nurses, what do you see,                                                     
What are you thinking when you look at me?
A crabbit old woman, not very wise,
Uncertain of habit, with far-away eyes,
Who dribbles her food and makes not 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 stocking or shoe,
Who, unresisting or not, let's 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, you're not looking at me.
I'll tell you who I am as I sit here so still,
As I move 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 girl at sixteen with wings on her feet,                             
Dreaming that soon now a lover she'll meet.
A bride 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 build a secure happy home.
A woman of thirty my young grow fast,
Bound to each other with ties that should last.
At forty my young now soon will be gone,
But my man stays 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 husband is dead.

I look at the future, I shudder with dread,
For my young are all busy rearing young of their own,
And I think of the years and the love I have known.
I'm an old woman now and nature is cruel,
'Tis her jest to make old age look like a fool.
The body it crumbles, grace and vigour depart
And now there's a stone where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass a young girl 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 so fast,
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, Nurses, open and see,
Not a crabbit old woman, look closer - see me.  
     I had read the poem in a geriatric magazine years before. It was written that the poem was found among the possessions of an elderly Irish lady who had died in a nursing home. She was unable to speak but was often seen writing. The poem so impressed her nurse that she sent it to the local newspaper. It has since become famous among health care workers.
     As we continued to treat Betty with respect, we gradually, ever so slowly, witnessed a softer Betty emerge. When she became bed-bound, we hung bird feeders and brightly colored hanging baskets in full bloom by her window. Her last command was to make sure we watered the flowers and kept the bird feeders full.
     Thanks for the life lesson, Betty. Sometimes we have to look deep to find the essence of a person. It may be hidden under layers of hurt or buried in years of stubbornness. But it’s there. All we have to do is be persistent and open our eyes and see.

Chronicles of the Agape House: The Longest Night

    Shortly after opening the Agape House, my nursing assistant called out sick so I had to work the night shift. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was inexcusably short-tempered and rude to our first patient, Jim.  
     Jim was 6’3”, 280 lbs and bed-bound, no small task to change his depends, pajamas and sheets while he remained in the bed. In fact, it was similar to a Houdini trick. This dreaded night was even more difficult as he had diarrhea and the trick had to be mastered many times.
     Blame it on fatigue, about 4:30 in the morning, as I heard the bell, again, I staggered to Jim’s bedside. I tried to keep my voice steady, “No, really it’s okay. It’s not your fault. Roll over to your side please. Your bottom’s really getting red. Let me get you some cream. . . Okay, now for some fresh sheets. . . ” 
     It was a long process, a repetitive routine. Jim must have noticed my annoyance because he began apologizing. I tried to assure him that I didn’t mind. But the truth was, I did mind. And worse, it showed. I thought I would vomit if I had to change one more diaper. Jim sensed this in my touch and in my tone. 
     After tucking him in, as I walked back to the office, hot tears  surfaced. I had never experienced such fatigue. Every muscle ached. My body seemed to scream, “Enough !”  
     My prayer for strength quickly turned to whining, which deteriorated into bellyaching and collapsed into an absolute pity party. Fortunately, I was the only one invited. I have a graduate degree. I’m a professional! Why am I cleaning dirty butts? I’ve been awake for over 24 hours and nobody cares!  Woe is me. . . woe is me. . .  I’m the only one on earth who cares. . . 
   In the middle of my pathetic droning, I remembered a poem I had read years earlier. I was so touched by the poem that I created a pattern and cross-stitched it with the hope of one day hanging it in my office.

I Wonder
You know, Lord, how I serve you
With great emotional fervor
In the limelight.
You know how eagerly I speak for You
At a woman’s club.
You know how I effervesce when I promote
A fellowship group.
You know my genuine enthusiasm
At a Bible study.
But how would I react, I wonder
If you pointed to a basin of water
And asked me to wash the calloused feet
Of a bent and wrinkled woman
Day after Day
Month after month
In a room where nobody saw
And nobody knew.
          Ruth Harms Cakins  

     Sitting at my desk after my disgraceful breakdown, I recalled the poem in detail. A poem about an anonymous servant . . . how ironic that I cross-stitched it with the intention of spotlighting it on the wall of my office. Self-defeating and hypocritical. God must grow weary of my stupidity. As I prayed for forgiveness and sincerely asked God to give me a compassionate attitude, Jim’s bell rang . . .  again.
     This time my voice was lighter and my touch softer as I changed and repositioned him. I made a joke about his derriere favoring a bright red candied apple. He retorted, “Well then kiss my aa. . . ple.”   We both laughed and as I tucked the quilt around him, he touched my hand and whispered, “Thank you.” 
     I kissed his forehead. “No problem, if I am ever as old as dirt like you, I hope someone will be there to clean my aa. . . ple.”  
     He smiled.
     As I checked on other patients, a quiet inner-voice reminded me that it’s not about me. Jim had been a successful engineer. He built bridges and traveled the world. Now, he was helpless, completely dependent. As hard as this was for me, it was clearly far more difficult for him. How challenging it must be for a patient to be courteous when he is slowly losing his pride and dignity. It’s obviously more difficult than being a caregiver.
    I would like to say that through that long night with Jim, I learned my lesson once and for all. But sadly, I’m a slow learner, and so I’m constantly being mashed and put back on the Potter’s wheel. At least I’m a little more pliable for the Master’s hands now.
     Just so you know, Jim remained kind and warm until his passing. He modeled how a strong, respected man should face his last days . . . with grace and dignity, and even a little humor. I still can’t see a candied apple without smiling and remembering sweet Jim.