Madonna House

Lights in the Nursing Homes

by Christina Milan

“Be good.” That is how Calvin said good-bye to me. His words brought a smile to my face because I knew that with his gentle admonition he was trying to soften the pain of parting. It worked. My heart was light as I left the nursing home where he lives.

It might be a long time before I see Calvin again. His nursing home is near Combermere, and I have returned to where I am assigned, to Madonna House in Winslow, Arizona. However, his words will stay with me.

Before I joined Madonna House, I spent a year studying nursing in Toronto. Then the following year I worked as a nurse’s aid in a nursing home. And during my years in Madonna House, I have visited many such homes: small ones with only a few residents living in a family-like atmosphere and large ones with several floors.

There can be tragic occurrences of abuse and neglect in nursing care facilities, which must be dealt with properly. But this is not the case where Calvin lives, a care facility where there is a beautiful spirit and much loving care.

But however good the nursing home, there is still the risk that a person becomes anonymous, someone whose personal history, whose life, no longer interests anyone.

So, in our day, nursing homes have become mission fields where God invites us to help restore his people through coming to know their names and faces and acknowledging the gift that each one’s life is to the world.

Calvin was born in 1951 and has had cerebral palsy since birth. He lived with his parents until their death, at which time he entered the home mentioned above.

A number of years ago, Joe Walker, an elderly member of Madonna House, was asked by our director general if he would go and live in that home as one of the residents, to be a missionary there—proclaiming the love of God and the Gospel by his presence and prayer. He agreed to do this.

There Joe and Calvin met and formed a friendship, eventually becoming roommates. They encouraged each other and they radiated the light of God’s love to others. This was God’s work and it was good.

When Joe died, Calvin was able to come to his funeral at Madonna House. It was such a gift to have Calvin with us.

When the good news of God’s love is lived and proclaimed, nursing homes become places of light, abounding in quiet acts of love and gestures of beauty. I have been witness to so many. I will mention just a few.

One occurred when I was working in a nursing home. On that occasion, as I came to the end of a particularly busy shift, I stopped by the room of a woman who had looked out-of-sorts all day.

I did not know her very well, but I took a risk and said, “I am sorry. There was so much work to do today that I didn’t get a chance to stop and ask you how you were feeling.”

“I am so lonely,” she replied, and her tears came like a river. As I sat holding her in my arms, a quiet friendship was born.

On another occasion, while I was working as a student nurse at a Jewish nursing home, I met a woman whose parents and siblings were killed in the Holocaust. She alone had survived. When she was seventeen, her parents had managed to send her to Canada to live with relatives.

When she said good-bye to her family in Europe, she had no idea that she would never see any of them again.

As she related this story to me, tears slid down my cheeks, and I tried to wipe them away discreetly. But she must have noticed because she continued, ‘When I was your age I used to cry all the time; now I have no tears left.”

At that, I burst into tears… and the woman who had no tears left, comforted me.

Later in an interview with my clinical instructor, I told her with some embarrassment what had happened. Much to my surprise, she assured me that my compassion had probably helped this woman tremendously.

Another elderly woman I was caring for found fault with everything I did. In fact, I cringed inside whenever she was assigned to my care for a shift. Her negativity was not aimed specifically at me; she treated all her caregivers with equal disdain.

Everything changed one night when I found her sitting on her bed, unable to sleep. When I asked her if there was anything I could do for her, she patted her bed, motioning for me to sit down beside her.

She proceeded to tell me about her life, a life which had been fraught with pain and difficulty. Then she opened the drawer of her night table and pulled out a piece of banana bread wrapped in a napkin. She broke it in half and offered me a piece. The bread was old and stale, but it was the most wonderful piece of banana bread I have ever eaten.

My friend’s behavior did not change overnight. Still there was a gradual softening of her sharp words, and I found that, because I knew that she loved me, I was able to overlook her cantankerous behavior.

When I was assigned to Madonna House in Washington DC, I visited a nursing home regularly. I began by asking for a list of residents who never received visitors.

“How are you?” I greeted the first resident I met. “I don’t know,” she replied. Then she said, “Despondent. The nurse told me that this morning.”

Suddenly I was filled with a deep conviction. This woman, Lily, was God’s beloved daughter! And if God’s love was a fire that Jesus came to cast upon the earth, then there was a fire right here in front of me—in Lily—just waiting to be kindled.

Have you ever started a fire in a human heart with the kindling of a clasped hand, a quick hug, a loving glance? Have you watched it grow? Have you seen it light flames in the hearts of others? I have.

I saw Lily’s gaze change little by little as she was called by name and loved. Her eyes began to shine with a warmth that was contagious.

Others saw it, too. I was told by a woman in our parish who brought Communion to the sick that she used to experience a certain aversion or fear in Lily’s presence, but now she was amazed by the beauty that radiated from her face.

Even though I haven’t seen Lily in nearly twelve years, my heart is still warmed by the memory of her transfigured gaze.

Albert was another resident in the nursing home in Washington; he had been a corporate lawyer before his debilitating stroke. His children never visited him, but he did not blame them. He knew that he had never been there for them when they were young.

When I asked him the names of his children, he faltered. Then he admitted that he used to call them 1, 2, 3, and 4.

A week later, however, filled with compunction, he told me all their names, including their middle names. In fact he had written them down in a list which he handed to me.

When I first met Albert, he was lying in the dark, waiting for death. One year later, he had become a liaison between staff and residents at the home, advocating for the rights of his peers.

When I left Washington, my last visit to this nursing home with all its good-byes was bittersweet. And it included an unexpected meeting with a young man in a wheel chair.

Though I recognized him as a resident of the home, we had never spoken to each other. He told me that my visits had been good for everyone there. He thanked me for coming, and thanked God for sending me.

For my part, I thank God for the life of each person I have encountered in a nursing home and for the gifts of love and friendship that I have received from them.

How good God is! As Jesus reminds us in the Gospel, There is One alone who is good(Mat 19:17). And is it not an amazing gift—his sharing that goodness with us? He gives us the gift of himself, so let us do likewise: As Calvin used to tell me, “Be good.” Let us do that by making a gift of our lives to others.