From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Treasured Visits

I met her on my first day as a volunteer ombudsman— a patient’s advocate at an assisted living facility. As the elevator doors on the first floor opened, I saw her—a large woman with graying hair, no more than fifty and seated on a bed in the room ahead. She was staring at something in her hands. I headed for the nurses’ station.

“Could I have the name of the woman in room 212?”

“Room 212?” murmured the nurse, glancing at a sheet in front of her. “That’s Jeannie,” said the young nurse with a smile. “She arrived today.”

Knowing how one feels in a strange place, I headed for the room and knocked. “Is there anything I can do for you?” I asked with a smile.

She glanced toward the door but didn’t return my smile. Well, I told myself, you can’t expect a smile on your first visit. After all, you are a stranger. “I am Mrs. Riley,” I said. “I am an ombudsman.”

“Ombudsman?” A frown crossed Jeannie’s face. “What do you want with me?”

“I heard it is your first day.” I waited for her to say something. When she didn’t, I continued. “Maybe there is something you would like me to get for you to make you more comfortable?”

Ignoring my question, she held out the photo. “My daughter and grandchildren. Aren’t they beautiful?”

I took the picture and agreed. The smiling faces were enough to brighten any room, especially this resident’s room. Her room was no more than ten by ten feet with a bed, a wardrobe and one easy chair. A small brown wooden table stood in front of the window. There were no pictures on the walls and no rugs on the floor—not even a colored cushion on the bed or chair. The only color in the room was the forget-me-not blue bedspread, compliments of the facility. Very little to show for fifty years of life, I remember thinking at the time.

“My daughter will be back to visit this weekend. Then I will get to see my grandchildren.” The woman’s face lit up, as she uttered the words, but her brown eyes never developed the warmth I had seen in the eyes of other proud grandmothers when they talked about their families. “She will bring my belongings.”

I nodded. No doubt the room would look better on my next visit, I thought. For the next fifteen minutes Jeannie told me about her childhood and growing up in Fresno. She described her old neighborhood. “All of us on my street attended the same schools together, married and when the babies came along, we got to baby-sit each other’s children.”

Fascinated, I couldn’t help but wonder why a woman of her stature and obvious independence was in an assisted living environment. From where I sat, she looked very capable. She rose and holding onto the bed and then the wall, made her way to the window. Spreading the curtains, she gazed out. “Everyone tells me the garden is beautiful this time of the year.”

As if sensing my thoughts, she turned and stared in my direction. “I suppose you’re wondering why I’m here.” Before I could speak, she continued. “I didn’t want to be a burden to my family after my husband died.”

“Burden?” I asked somewhat confused. As I met her steady gaze, I couldn’t imagine her being a burden on anyone. She was still young, independent and able to move by herself. The few residents I had seen when I entered the building were anything but independent; some were confined to wheelchairs, while others managed to walk with the aid of walking frames. This resident was different. I had witnessed it myself as she clutched the bedpost and the wall, making her way to the window.

As I reflected on what I had seen, a cannon went off in my head. How could I have missed it? Her staring eyes that didn’t have warmth, her failure to smile when I walked in, her need to clutch the bed and then the wall, finally, her comments about the beautiful garden? Jeannie was blind.

Each week for the remainder of the month, I made sure I didn’t miss a visit with Jeannie. I’d listen while she told me about her family and how well her grandchildren were doing in school. On one occasion, she told me about her granddaughter’s forthcoming piano recital. “My daughter is coming this Saturday to take me to hear Annie play,” Jeannie said excitedly.

Several days later, when I asked Jeannie about the recital, a frown crossed her face. “I didn’t get to the recital.”

I saw the disappointment on her face and heard the sadness in her voice. “My daughter called to say she was running late. Work had kept her longer than she had planned. Coming here would have made her even later, and she didn’t want to miss the recital.” She paused then smiled. “Not to worry,” she said, “I’ll get to hear about it when the family comes to visit.”

Over the next month, I found myself looking more and more forward to my chats with Jeannie. Despite her handicap, she always managed to have a cheery smile for me as I entered the room. “Hi, Rosemarie,” she’d say as I entered. She recognized my footsteps before I had time to ask, “How are you, Jeannie? Have you heard from your family this week?”

Then the following week, I arrived early at the facility. Leaving the elevator at the first floor, I approached Jeannie’s room. Pushing open the door, I halted. The room was empty. Disappointed, I inquired at the nurses’ station. “Has Jeannie gone out with her daughter? It’s such a nice day to be outdoors,” I said, remembering the warmth of the summer sun on my arms as I made my way toward the building.

The nurse shook her head. “The only person to visit Jeannie is you. Her family has managed to visit only once since she has been here.”

“But Jeannie tells me about their visits. What about the rugs and the pictures on the wall?” I had noticed Jeannie’s room taking on color since my first visit.

“Oh those things? We found some pictures and rugs in a storeroom. Thought they would brighten up the room.”

The nurse made a note in a book. “It’s really so sad. The residents look forward to visitors, and Jeannie’s no exception.”

“Where’s Jeannie now?”

“You’ll find her in the community hall,” said the nurse.

“It’s sing-along today. Jeannie loves to sing.”

Sure enough as I entered the hall, I saw Jeannie sitting in the front row singing heartily. I made my way down the aisle. “Hi,” I whispered.

Jeannie smiled and beckoned me to join her. For the next thirty minutes we sang together, her melodious contralto voice hiding my high-pitched off-key one. At the end of the show Jeannie took me aside. “I just wanted to tell you I had a call from my daughter. Annie got straight A’s. I knew she could do it.”

Two weeks later, I stepped out of the elevator and headed for Jeannie’s room. Outside the open door, I stopped. The room looked different. The bed had a different coverlet—a floral one, not the blue one I had grown accustomed to seeing when I entered. A white painted desk stood under the window and a matching rocker sat in the corner. Two framed pictures sat on the table next to a vase of fresh zinnias. Gone were the flowered rugs. Instead, a large red Persian rug square covered the floor.

Her daughter must have bought new furniture for her, I thought. But a strange feeling swept over me as I stared at the photos. My heart beat faster as I retreated down the hallway. At the nurses’ station I paused. “Has Jeannie moved?”

The nurses exchanged glances. “We were going to call you. Early yesterday morning, she passed away.”

“Jeannie’s dead?”

The nurse nodded. “She had a bad heart.”

“I didn’t know,” I mumbled dumbfounded and turned to go. “If it’s any consolation, Mrs. Riley,” said one of the nurses, “you were the highlight of her week. She looked forward to your visits.”

A warm glow flowed over me. I turned back and saw the nurses smiling. “She did?”

“Sure,” the nurses chorused. “She was always asking us the time and how much longer before you’d arrive. Then she’d go and sit on her bed to wait.”

Though I knew I would miss our talks, I felt comforted by the knowledge that for a short time, I had been a friend to Jeannie, and maybe, just maybe, I had made a difference in her life.

Rosemarie Riley

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