19: The Greatest Gift

19: The Greatest Gift

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

The Greatest Gift

Stop this attitude that older people ain’t any good anymore! We’re as good as we ever were — if we ever were any good.

~Dolly Parton

I saw the nursing home out of the corner of my eye as my family and I carried boxes from the moving van to our new apartment. The place my mom had found for us was a nice apartment, and I was happy that it was in a quiet neighborhood with trees and a nearby park. What I hadn’t noticed when she showed it to my brothers, sister and me was that there was a nursing home for senior citizens right across from it.

I was in my teens then, and since my grandparents had passed away years ago, I really had no daily contact with older people. I was more interested in my own life. Old people weren’t on my radar. I figured they weren’t very interested in me, either.

I walked to the bus stop down the road to go to school, so every morning I would walk past the nursing home. Invariably, four or five people would be sitting on iron chairs on the porch. They would always call out and wave to me as I passed by. I didn’t really know what to say to them, so I just pretended I didn’t hear them.

One day I came home to find my mom frosting a chocolate cake in the kitchen. “Is that for dessert?” I asked, my mouth watering.

Mom shook her head. “I baked it for the people at the nursing home,” she told me. “I found out from some of the nurses that they love cake, so I decided to bake them one.”

“You went over there?” I asked.

My mom nodded. “I go over two or three times a week after work to visit with the residents. Some of those people don’t get many visitors. We sit and talk and play cards.”

“You mean you volunteer there?”

She nodded. “They’re great people. I enjoy it.”

I was amazed. My mom wasn’t old. What could she have in common with the people at the nursing home? I had a hard time imagining spending any time with them. They seemed so confused all the time I figured they wouldn’t even know I was there. So I shrugged, told myself there wouldn’t be cake for dessert, and went to do my homework.

A few weeks went by. One Saturday morning my mom told me she had a cold and couldn’t go to the nursing home. She asked if I would go in her place.

“You want me to go inside that place and talk to those people?” I really wanted no part of that. I was happy my mom liked volunteering, but it wasn’t for me.

“Someone should go,” she said. “Your brothers and sister have other work to do today, and I wouldn’t want the folks at the nursing home to think I forgot about them.”

I moaned and groaned about it, but in the end, I agreed to go. I figured I’d tell the nurses there that my mom was sick and couldn’t come and then leave. But when I stepped inside a nurse listened while I explained why my mom couldn’t come, then smiled at me.

“Your mom called and told us you’d be coming over to visit with our residents. Why don’t you go into the recreation room and say hello?”

I really didn’t want to do that. The whole place smelled strange, and there were old people everywhere. Some walked around, some were in wheelchairs, and I saw that some were in their beds in the rooms that lined the hallways. I was very uncomfortable, but I had promised my mom so I decided to give it a try.

In the recreation room I sat down next to an old man who was staring at a checkerboard on a table. “Are you playing checkers?” I asked.

The old man looked at me. “Do you see me playing with anyone?” He sounded kind of grouchy, but then I figured it might be because he had no one to play checkers with.

“May I play?” I asked.

He looked at me. His eyes seemed suspicious, but then he nodded and made the first move. I had always liked to play checkers, and considered myself a fair player, but this guy was good! He won the first game, and as we set up the board for another, he told me he’d been a teacher before he retired.

“Really? That’s something I’d like to do someday,” I said as I moved a checker.

“You have to study very hard,” he told me. Then he told me about his teaching days, and some of the other things he’d done in his life. He’d been a pilot in the Air Force, worked on a farm, and even worked in a circus! I couldn’t believe he’d led such an interesting life. We played several more games while he shared more stories about his life.

By the time I left that morning, I had met a few other residents and learned that all these people were individuals who had done many things in their lives, and who still hoped and dreamed and laughed, and treasured spending time with others. I think I saw them as real people for the very first time that day.

I went back after that, again and again, and my brothers and sister came, too. We spent lots of time there throughout the years we lived next to the nursing home. I made many friends whom I’ll always remember, and I learned that sometimes the greatest gift you can give others is your time, your understanding, and your love. It’s a gift that is never wasted.

~John P. Buentello

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