I’m not exactly sure when it was my mother and father taught me about kindness. I suppose it was always something they made a point to teach me from such a young age and continued to do so as I grew older. There were so many times when I would run home, tears streaming down my face due to hurtful words and actions made by others and ask my mother how people could be so mean. She would explain that, throughout life, I would encounter these types of people and although there was nothing I could do to control the situation, that no matter how terribly they made me feel, all I could do was to remain kind and never allow myself to be anything but. And she was right; as I grew up, I encountered many people who unmercifully would be cruel to me for no apparent reason, and although I would feel deep pain from their hurtful words, I tried as best as I could to remain as kind as possible.
It’s something that became a habit to me. Although there were times when others would push me too far and I had to prove that I did, indeed, have a backbone, overall I did exactly as my mother and father told me: kill them with kindness. This lesson never really sunk in until I was about 20 years old and was working at a nursing home as a personal care attendant. In this position, I encountered many different types of people ranging from kind, loving, and courteous, to cold, rude, and spiteful. My hardest resident had to have been a 97 year old woman named Laura. Her mind was completely overtaken by the saddest disease I have ever witnessed: Alzheimer’s. There are a few sadder things in life than seeing a person completely lose touch with who they are, and the reality that they live in. While some people with Alzheimer’s can become forgetful yet still seemingly enjoy life and have an absolutely beautiful attitude, there are many who become filled with uncontrollable anger and hostility–Laura was one of these people.
Part of my job meant having to care for the resident’s by making sure they were bathed, changed, and eating properly. While many residents reluctantly allowed us to care for them, Laura wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. Countless times myself and other staff members would say a little prayer before entering her room to give her a shower, or to tell her that we need to change her Depends (basically a diaper that elderly people wear when they can no longer control their bladder). A lot of people did not have patience for Laura; whenever we would try to deliver her care, or give her her medicine, she would become completely outraged and start swearing, screaming, and hitting us. There were many times she would spit right on me and tell me to fuck off. Naturally, this left many of the staff members terrified of their encounters with her, except me. I knew that deep down she did not want to act like this and that she couldn’t control it even if she wanted to. Due to this, I would usually take on the care of Laura even if I wasn’t assigned to her that day.
I knew that there was no chance of her remembering me and that it was pretty much a lost cause trying to gain her trust, but every day I tried anyway. I would walk into her room first thing in the morning, flip on her lights, and with a big smile, shout “GOOD MORNING LAURA!” She would slowly open her eyes and say in her high pitched, crackling voice, “What the hell… leave me alone!” I would go up to her in her bed and put my face close to hers and say, “Oh, come on! I know you want some coffee and cereal! How about we get you dressed and ready for breakfast?” This would usually release the little demon inside of her and out of her mouth came pouring a bunch of profanity that I would either laugh about or completely ignore. She absolutely hated when I got enjoyment out of her shrill voice and the fact that a tiny, adorable elder woman was cussing me out. She would then push, hit, punch, and spit on me all through giving her a shower, getting her dressed, and getting her out of bed and out of her door. She would ask why I was doing all of this to her, and each time I would tell her, “It’s because I love you!”
Months went by and I continued to show her love and kindness despite the fact that she seemed to absolutely hate my existence (even though she didn’t have a clue who I was every time she woke up from a night’s sleep or a nap). Every time I passed her, I would say hello and smile, even though she would usually just stare at me and shake her head. Many times I would overhear her “whispering” to other residents, “Boy, she’s crazy, isn’t she?” Still, I would laugh and continue to show her just how crazy I was. I never expected Laura to ever be kind to me; I pretty much understood that it was a lost cause but the love in my heart for her was very real, so despite it, I showered her with love every single day.
While I gained the reputation around the nursing home of being the “smiley girl”, the one who was always happy and loving, there were many days when things going on outside of the workplace were dragging me down and I felt anything but happiness. As best as I could, I tried to never bring this into work. I didn’t want any of the residents, whom I looked at as my grandparents (all 60+ of them), knowing I was struggling and battling depression. I knew that they didn’t need any type of negativity in their lives and a part of me felt guilty feeling such sadness when there were obviously people who were battling things much worse than I was. I’m certain, however, that many of them would pick up on my behavior that seemed out of the usual. Some would claim my smile didn’t seem as bright, or they could see it in my eyes that I was dealing with something. The ones who had their memory in tact would usually give me a hug and tell me they loved me, which obviously filled my heart and soul with brief happiness and contentment.
Nothing hit me quite as hard as the day everything changed between Laura and I during this time in my life when I was struggling. As I previously stated, Laura had absolutely no short term memory. Some days were better than others and she would remember bits and pieces from her past, but it seemed as though her long term memory was slowly fading away as well. But she never remembered anything short term, such as what she just had for breakfast 5 minutes prior.
It was a day that my depression weighed heavier than usual; I could feel it throughout my entire body. I couldn’t even bring myself to fake a smile and I was pretty much avoiding eye contact with anyone I passed in the hall that morning. The first on my list of residents to get ready was Laura and although I was not in the mood to deal with her shenanigans, it was my job so I prepared myself for it anyway. Instead of walking into her room with my normal attitude, I silently walked in and lightly awoke her and gently said, “Morning, Laura. It’s time to get ready for breakfast.” Although she let out a few grumbles, she didn’t throw a fit like she normally does. She asked me what the time was and where she was and after explaining it to her, she slowly got up and allowed me to get her ready. I didn’t joke around with her and I didn’t flash my smile; instead, as I was showering her, it was her who starting cracking jokes with me. Although there were times when I would succeed in making her laugh, it was unusual for her to be the one trying to make me laugh. She was making faces at me and cracking jokes about how I had to “wipe her ass” and reluctantly, she got me to crack a smile.
As I got her dressed that morning, I told her to head down to the dining hall and I’d see her shortly. Once I arrived down there and walked through the doors, she looked right at me and flashed the biggest smile I had ever seen across her face. I smiled back and waved to her and she stuck her tongue out at me and let out a laugh I had never heard come out of her tiny body. Part of me believed that maybe the night nurses had given her the wrong medication, but I knew that was highly unlikely. While passing out pills as the residents ate their food, I got to Laura and handed her the cup of medicine assigned to her. I didn’t have the energy to joke around with her as I normally did, so I sat them in front of her.
“What the hell are these?” She asked, as she normally did.
“It’s your medicine, Laura. It’s from your doctor. I have to watch you take it,” I explained.
Usually, this would cause her to start cussing at me about how she doesn’t need medicine, but instead she sort of shrugged and one by one started taking her medicine and sticking her tongue out so I could see that she took each one. Once she was finished, I forced a smile and got ready to walk back to my medicine cart when all of a sudden I felt her cold, fragile hand grab tightly onto my arm. I looked at her ice blue eyes staring back at mine and she smiled and told me to come closer.
At that moment, she embraced me with a hug and said, “I love you, I really do.”
It was as though every resident heard her say this despite the fact that 85% of them had hearing problems, but they couldn’t believe what they had just heard and neither could I. Shocked, I looked at her and said, “What?”
She looked back at me and said, “You’re my sweetheart, and I love you.”
Tears immediately began to form in my eyes and a smile broke onto my face that overwhelmed me with happiness and through a cracked voice I said, “I love you too, Laura.” We both smiled and I walked away, completely in shock of what had just happened. My sister, who worked with me at the time, looked at me and asked me if what she witnessed really just happened. Everyone was in shock that day. Again, I chalked it up to being an off day for Laura and I didn’t get my hopes up, and just assumed that she would return to her “normal” self once afternoon hit, or once she woke up the next day. But I was wrong. The days following, and for the rest of the time I worked there, the relationship between Laura and I completely changed. While there were some days that she would act out and tell me to go to hell, it was as though my kindness warmed her soul and brought out in her the love I knew she had deep down. Whenever she would act out, I would make fun of her right back and we would laugh and smile at each other and she would tell me how much she loved me.
I knew that Laura never really remembered who I was; I knew I would never walk into her room and have her call out my name and recall the moments we shared laughing and loving. But the fact that, despite the debilitating disease she suffered from that ate away at her brain, she remembered that she loved me and that I loved her, and that was enough to make my darkest days see a little bit of sunshine and happiness. Words will never begin to describe how much I miss seeing her face and hearing her voice. The pain in my chest will never cease when I think back on our times together and realize we will never create more wonderful moments together, but I learned such an amazing lesson that will forever remain in my heart and soul until the day that I die. While Laura was filled with so much anger and displayed hate to so many people, all it took was persistence and never giving up and giving in to the demon that hate portrays itself as. Laura showed me that kindness goes such a long way, and that showing someone love and compassion can cure even the most broken of souls.
I love you, Laura. Forever, your sweetheart.