Last Friday, my English for Humanitarian Work class visited an old aged home. A nurse led us around dropping off different students in various rooms. A woman with curly grey hair and glasses was sitting in the first corridor we went down. We stopped to introduce ourselves. She listened attentively.
“I don’t want to talk to you,” she said, “I don’t have anything to talk about.”
I trailed behind as the nurse moved on with the surprised students trailing behind her. “Maybe you could tell us about your life before you were here,” I suggested. I also told her that the students were from different countries and she could ask them questions about that. She asked the student who had remained behind with me where he was from.
“I’m from Spain,” he replied.
She looked confused. “What?”
“He’s from Spain,” I reiterated, thinking maybe she hadn’t understood his accent. “Where are you from?” she repeated.
I tried a different tactic. “Europe.”
“Oh, okay,” she said. We made small talk for a few minutes, then she asked him, “So where are you from?”
He looked at me. “Europe,” he said, and we both laughed.?
She told us how much she missed her family. She couldn’t understand why she was in the home, and she was planning to pack up her things and escape as soon as she got the chance. She had an overwhelming urge to go and find her parents, but she wasn’t sure if they were still alive. She said she’d been back to their house, but when she’d knocked, there hadn’t been any answer. My student and I exchanged disbelieving glances. As she slowly shared more complaints about the home with us, she looked around carefully.? “I have big ears,” she said, “You have to around here.” I felt her frustration, her isolation. I noticed some photos on the wall of the room in front of us, and asked if they were hers. The three of us got up, and she introduced us to her family, her voice affectionate as she pointed out all of her nieces and nephews. At least she has this for company, I thought, wondering at the same time why they’d put her in here.
While we had been talking, there had been continuous moans from the room next door. Someone was shouting something over and over again. Hearing only garbled language, I attributed it to a mentally-disturbed resident and tried to block it out.
At one point, my student said, “I think she wants water.”
The next time the voice called, I realized that he was right. It was a sweltering afternoon and we’d all worked up a sweat on our short walk here. Feeling guiltily that I hadn’t understood her cry before, I got up and went to the kitchen at the end of the corridor. The nurse on duty handed me some water from the fridge and I filled a glass. I walked slowly back down the corridor, careful not to spill. When I reached the room, I hesitated briefly, unsure what I would find inside. A large woman with short, grey hair lay flat on the bed, her head resting heavily on her pillow. “Waaater,” she mumbled.
“Yes, yes, I have water for you.” I went over to the bed and attempted to hand her the glass.
“I can’t….” She indicated for me to rest the glass on her chest. I took a straw from the glass next to her bed and put it in the cold water, then tipped it into her mouth. She inhaled deeply, paused. “Do you want some more?” She nodded, and I placed the staw back into her mouth. The glass emptied quickly. I returned to the kitchen to top it up. When I came back, she said, “Thank you, thank you for your kindness.”
Her words went into my heart. Immobile on the bed, her gratefulness was palpable. I felt the world around me stop. My seemingly huge problems melted away in front of what she was facing. I remembered sitting by my grandfather’s bed in the nursing home many years ago, wishing so strongly that I could make him better. I asked if she’d like to meet one of my students, explaining I was visiting with a class full of people from other countries. She nodded. My eighteen-year-old student from Venezuela came inside. This was not a usual outing for him. Baby-faced with a rugby player’s build, he towered over her. I knelt beside the bed, and he took the hint. He asked if she’d been married and she shook her head.
“Did you have many boyfriends?” he inquired.
Even though it was a strain for her to talk, she was trying. Even though her lack of teeth made her speech difficult to understand, he wasn’t becoming frustrated. Their interaction inspired me. In a few minutes, it was time to go. I squeezed her hand, not wanting to leave, acutely aware of the inadequacy of what I was able to offer. I wanted to say I would come back and see her soon, but didn’t know if I would be able to follow through on that promise. She repeated her thanks for my kindness. The knowing that one seemingly insignificant action could make the world of difference for another human being sunk into me as we walked back to the school, and I felt my feet connecting with the ground.?