28: Never Too Late

28: Never Too Late

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Never Too Late

Being stubborn can be a good thing. Being stubborn can be a bad thing. It just depends on how you use it.

~Willie Aimes

I stood at the end of a long hallway in the rehab unit of a local nursing home. A nurse warned me — a middle-schooler — that Howard, the stroke patient in the room to the left, was cranky and rude on a good day. On a bad day, I could expect to be sworn at. I went ahead and invited Howard to join us for our recreation program that afternoon. He replied with angry, unkind words telling me to never come back.

I’ve always appreciated a challenge. Howard didn’t break my heart like sweet Mrs. Quattlebaum, who told me each day that her son would be in soon to visit; her son never came. In a place full of hard stories, end-of-life stories, stories of loss and leaving, Howard’s story became a welcome relief. I didn’t feel pity or sadness when I walked into Howard’s room. I was livid.

He was relatively young in comparison to the other residents, maybe in his early fifties or a bit younger. He had been a wealthy and successful business executive in New York City, and he had chosen a rehab center a hundred miles away so that none of his former peers could see the shell of a man he’d become. Instead of diving in to physical and occupational therapy, he refused to go.

When I first met Howard, I was told that he never got out of his hospital gown into his own clothes, even though the therapists and nurses urged him to. Each time I visited him in the early days, he would be in bed, in a gown, unkempt.

I spent my summer days at the center, helping residents get to recreation programs, passing out mail, reading letters to the many residents with vision trouble, organizing an entire closet of recorded books from the local society for the blind. After I met Howard, I decided to invite him to the recreation program every single day, regardless of his response.

I had a grandmother who also had suffered a stroke, but she didn’t have the positive prognosis that Howard had. I was angry that he was willing to throw his life away without even trying. The therapists told me again and again that if Howard would just come to therapy, he would recover almost all of the functions he had lost in his stroke. So each day I braved Howard’s verbal onslaught and invited him to do puzzles and play bingo.

As the therapists and nurses saw me persevere with Howard, they asked me to bring him to his therapy appointments. He wasn’t exactly warm but he usually held back his verbal barrage and curtly told me, “No,” he did not want to go to physical therapy. One day, after many attempts, Howard finally said, “Yes.”

Howard started warming up to me, telling me pieces of his story. He started shaving and getting into brightly colored tracksuits. He began to clean up after meals so that the crumbs and bits of egg no longer speckled his chin and chest. He told me about his life in New York and the shame that drove him far up the coast, away from those who knew him as a powerful man. Looking back on it from an adult perspective, I’m sure confiding in a twelve-year-old candy striper was safer and easier than talking with any of the adults at the center. Perhaps that was why my persistence finally bore fruit.

Howard shared how he had never married. He talked about his niece, whom he loved very much. He hadn’t been in touch with her since his stroke. After a lot of insistence on my part, he dictated a letter that I happily mailed to her. Soon she was writing back and eventually making plans to visit.

I remember the day he was waiting for me with a new photograph resting in his hands, eager to show me the portrait his niece had sent. Howard also began to contact former friends and colleagues who had wondered where he was. The last day of my work there that summer, Howard was sitting in his wheelchair in the hallway near the nurse’s station, standing out in his bright red tracksuit, cheerful and smiling and ready to greet me when I arrived. He was no longer a prisoner in his room at the end of the hall, no longer the resident that everyone was afraid of.

I don’t know who had a greater impact on the other: me with irritating persistence asking Howard to join life again and stop wallowing in self-pity or him teaching me a profound lesson — it’s never too late to start again. Howard wasted months of his life after his stroke, refusing any help offered to him, ignoring the pleas of medical professionals assuring him that he could live, and live well, if he would work hard at his recovery. Somehow, in the face of a chubby and stubborn seventh-grader who had signed up as a volunteer in response to her own grandmother’s stroke, Howard met his match and made significant changes.

Labor Day came and school started; my afternoons at the center were over for the year. When I returned months later to visit, Howard’s room had a new name on the door. The director of the recreation program told me that he had left the center, able to live on his own again. It really wasn’t too late to have a fresh start.

~Elizabeth Peterson

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