South Africa--She sat in the cushioned chair next to the entrance of the old-aged home and fixed her piercing gaze upon us. Red, curly hair framed a face with large eyes and splashes of base carefully applied to her aging cheeks. Her wheelchair was parked beside her while some half-finished knitting rested in her lap.
Her face had lit up the instant we’d arrived. She’d spoken to each of the students individually, bombarding them with questions about themselves and their lives.
“I travel through people,” she said after her investigation had been completed.
I understood her completely. Meeting foreign people was her window to the world outside since she is too old to go to exotic destinations anymore.
In normal circumstances, the world she lived in consisted of one pink building containing her room, the rooms of the other elderly residents, the dining room, tea room area and outdoor patio. Youthful visitors were a welcome anomaly.
“He came to see me just before he left,” she said, her face brightening as she talked about a Spanish-speaking student who had visited her frequently and cared for her like a grandmother. “He left me some postcards, each with a different message, one for every day of the week. “ She handed them around for the students and I to look at.
You made my life happier, said one. Te quiero mucho. Voy a estar siempre en mi corazon, said another. She refused to sit in the tea room with the others.
“They’re so old,” she told us, wrinkling her nose. “They don’t do anything except go between their room and the dining room. There’s a lovely garden area and another balcony upstairs, but no one uses the space. I’m always sitting by myself here,” she gestured at the sitting area near the door, spacious and bright.
“You see,” she pointed at a postcard with a picture of a brightly coloured parrot.
Keep the girl in your heart, was scrawled on the back.
“I always say the skin is like the wrapping paper on a present,” she said with a smile. “ You use it many times and it becomes old and wrinkled, but the present inside is just the same. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you can choose to stay young.”
Although she may not have realized it, another resident currently inside the tearoom had adopted a similar philosophy. He was around 70 years old, tall and slim with a face crinkled by years of laughter, and he had just been playing the piano for the student visitors. His fingers flew nimbly over the keys, and occasionally he’d sing along. “Don’t cry for me Argentina…”
We were all amazed to discover that he’d only taken a month of piano lessons when he was younger. Moreover, he couldn’t read music but played only by ear. The older Venezuelan student sat beside him, sharing her appreciation of his talent. He was beaming.
I sat talking with another resident, who I’d seen before but never spoken to. He told me he was destined to be a professional rugby player until his accident. There had been a few moments when they had thought he was dead but he’d pulled through. The metal from the destroyed car had barely missed his brain. He was not allowed to play sports again but instead was paid a compensation salary for the rest of his life. He proudly showed me a silver ring he’d inherited from his father, and explained that it contained his father’s initials. He said his parents were dead now, his siblings as well. He seemed sad, but at the same time, I could feel his appreciation of my presence beside him, my willingness to listen.
I looked around and saw my Dutch and Japanese students chatting happily with some elderly women on the other side of the room. They all were laughing and seemed very comfortable with each other. A Scottish resident removed his slippers, sweetly took the hand of a nearby woman and led her into the middle of the floor. She shook her head at the invitation to waltz and returned to her seat. He sighed, sat down and attempted to push his feet back into his slippers. “Our resident Prince Charming,” they called him.
Although it was the final stage of many of these people’s lives, life was tangibly present here. And our sharing even a short time with them emphasized this by the pleasure on their faces. And while we were giving something, we were definitely receiving as well, inhaling a feeling of well-being that was difficult to describe. I thought about what a simple way to make a difference this was, and what could happen if everyone in South Africa gave an hour of their time to brightening someone else’s day.