74: Merry Christmas Mr. J

74: Merry Christmas Mr. J

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses

Merry Christmas Mr. J

It is one of the beautiful compensations of this life that no one can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.

~Charles Dudley

He was a proud war veteran, this man who changed my life. He lived alone in a tiny apartment and had no family left alive. He was fiercely independent, and now he was dying.

I was a fledgling hospice home health nurse working in a poor community that was fast becoming a ghost town, falling victim like so many others to the loss of once thriving industry. My husband had recently lost his job and we had a new home and mortgage. I was now the sole breadwinner and low on the pay scale. Christmas was coming. I was deeply depressed.

Mr. J came into my life uneventfully, another patient living in gang territory. I was used to the area and knew the necessary safety precautions. We were to visit early in the day and let the patient know when to expect us. We wore standard colors, easy to identify as “the nurse.” We moved in and out of the homes quickly and left the area if there was any sign of trouble. I knew the rules and planned my day accordingly. Mr. J was my second visit of the day.

When I arrived I had that feeling of anticipation that only a home health nurse can know, the increasing adrenaline as you knock at the door wondering what you will find within. I knew only that he lived alone, was dying of cancer, and was discharged from the hospital the day before. Thoughts raced through my head. Did he know his prognosis? What kinds of problems was he having? Was he ready for hospice?

Mr. J opened the door, greeted me with a warm smile, and welcomed me in. The room was sparsely furnished but neat as a pin.

As we talked I learned that he had never married and had no one close, other than a few friends in the neighborhood. They took him to appointments and to the store. He was able to buy a few groceries with food stamps.

I noticed that the TV was on but had no picture. He saw me looking at it and got up to turn it off, telling me, “I listen to it; I don’t need to see it anyway.”

I asked about his sleeping arrangements and he pointed to the bedroom. I noticed he had no sheets, just a bare mattress with a blanket on top, stretched taut with nary a wrinkle, and tucked in tightly at the bottom. His corners were neater than any I had ever folded, perhaps from his military training. There was no sign of laundry anywhere, no chests or boxes, no hamper, nothing but a bed and a small closet. I peeked inside to see only a few pieces of tattered clothing on hangers.

As we turned toward the kitchen, I noted his clothes were so threadbare I could practically see through them.

I looked around with dawning awareness that this man had only a few items to his name. He had worked all his life but somehow ended up here, unable to afford any of the things that we think are so important to happiness. He was overwhelmingly poor, yet he was happy and kept his tiny apartment and his ragged clothes clean and neat as though he had a palace and the fine robes of a king.

He wanted nothing and denied any need for assistance or services. He was doing well the way things were, thank you very much, and would only allow the nurse to visit a few times to make his doctor happy. Nothing more. He knew he was dying, and that was okay with him for it was in God’s hands and God had never failed him yet.

I cried that night. I felt so guilty for worrying about money and Christmas presents when in reality I had so much to be thankful for.

At the next visit I took him some sheets and a few pieces of clothing from my husband’s closet. I lied, casually telling him that we had things in the office that people had given us for anyone who might be able to use them. If he took them that would really help us out since there was not much room in the office for storage. He agreed that would be just fine.

I wanted to do something for him for Christmas. I knew he would not want anyone to fuss over him. I thought of him all alone, listening to the TV, looking out at the snow, and it gave me an idea. My husband and I had combined our furniture when we married, and I still had the small TV from my apartment. It wasn’t much, but it had a picture and Mr. J’s did not. I decided that he should at least have a TV to watch at Christmas.

On Christmas Eve it was snowing heavily. We were headed to the annual family gathering, but I told my husband I needed him to do a favor for me before we went. We drove the dark winding road through the snow to where Mr. J lived. I was so excited, thinking that this was what it must be like to be Santa. I was concerned about going to the rough neighborhood after dark, but I knew that I had to do this.

When we got to the apartment complex, I had my husband take the TV to the door to give to Mr. J while I stayed hidden in the car. He had recently grown his beard and I had him wear a red Santa hat for the job.

When Mr. J opened the door, my husband said, “Merry Christmas! I heard you could use a TV!” He took it in, placed it on a table, turned and left.

We went on to the party, filled with happiness.

Mr. J died a few weeks later. We never spoke about the TV, but I saw it in the living room during my last few visits. I hope he watched something wonderful on Christmas Eve.

I like to think this one last gift for him made his last Christmas on earth as happy as he made mine.

~Carol Gaido-Schmidt

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