From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

The Sign of the Rabbit

What we learn with pleasure, we never forget.

Alfred Mercier

Eighty-seven-year-old Lucia had the hands of a twenty-year-old woman. Soft and graceful, they would move through the air as if in a dance. Watching her fingers lightly tickling an imaginary stage in front of her, one could barely resist being drawn into her lyrical movements. Those hands always delivered an insightful message. Deaf since the age of three, Lucia was particularly energetic and adept with sign language, her only form of communication.

I visited Lucia at a local nursing home with my pet dwarf rabbit named Cadberi. Pet therapy was a new concept in nursing homes. But Cadberi was a “ham” and loved his “job.” His animal magnetism stemmed from his gifts of compassion and cuteness that radiated through his soft brown eyes, long whiskers and briskly bobbing nose.

Cadberi understood visitors and instinctively knew their innermost desire to be needed and touched. He inspired even the most confused residents who, during Cadberi’s visits, sometimes even spoke or responded lucidly. His job benefits included endless caresses from the residents as well as all the carrots and kale he could eat in a day. While he lay in many residents’ arms or stretched out on their beds, Cadberi had a special bond with Lucia. She was definitely his favorite.

I did not know how to speak sign language. But after a few days, I realized that even if I didn’t know the words, our smiles and laughter communicated volumes. I increasingly became more interested in learning and purchased an American Sign Language dictionary. Goodness knows what Lucia was thinking as I clumsily tried to sign back to her. But her bright-eyed smile and fighting spirit always encouraged me even if she had to guide my hands physically until I got the big “Aha!”

We quickly bonded as student and teacher as well as friends and companions. Our visits became the melding of two worlds far apart in time, yet precious in all the knowledge she was giving me. I wasn’t sure who looked forward more to the visits—Cadberi or me. Whenever it came to “that time,” he would willingly jump into his carrier labeled “Have Bunny—Will Travel.” Arriving at the nursing home, he perked his ears up expecting his first “client” meeting. Yet when Lucia rolled around the corner while flashing me the sign meaning “cute rabbit,” Cadberi would begin squirming in my arms, preparing to leap into her lap. She was the only person with whom he’d ride on a wheelchair.

“Cute Rabbit” was the first sign I ever learned, as it was the most repeated in our conversations. This sign of the rabbit became our hello and good-bye, and as time went on, it also became my name.

After three years of continuous visits, Lucia never gave up on me nor I on her. Yet I couldn’t help but notice the Alzheimer’s disease catching up on her bit-by-bit. It broke my heart to see her struggle and sign back the same questions to me with a deeply bewildered effect. Sadly she would grimace in pain from her increasingly tight and throbbing arthritic hands. I knew the time was coming when Lucia would no longer be guiding my hands in speech, but I would be holding hers in support.

One day I came to visit and found every nursing home volunteer’s worst discovery—a stripped empty bed. Seeing no personal effects, I thought the worst. I felt the tears gathering in my eyes. I could see the disappointment in Cadberi’s eyes as well. Minutes felt like hours until a nurse filled me in.

Lucia was still alive but had been transferred to a “step-down” nursing home. This was a smaller center that specialized in caring for the more seriously ill, and it was near her daughter’s residence. Lucia was now in a center that was ninety minutes from my home. I thought I would never get to see her again, and worse, not get the chance to say good-bye.

After a few weeks, I couldn’t go on without seeing Lucia. Impulsively, I called the center. I was told Lucia was unable to leave her bed and could barely recognize family members. Still I asked if Cadberi and I could come by for one more visit.

During the long ride to the center, Cadberi got restless in his carrier. He shook with nervousness from the drive as he was only accustomed to “short hops” in the car.

Arriving at the center, I was greeted in the hallway by Lucia’s daughter.

“It’s not one of her good days,” she said. “She won’t recognize you and can barely sit up.”

“That’s okay,” I replied. “I just want to give them one more chance to visit.”

We walked quietly into Lucia’s room. She lay still, sleeping in her bed. She was drawn and pale. Only wearing a hospital gown, she didn’t resemble the vibrant woman who taught me so much on survival. Yet Cadberi knew. He knew immediately who she was and began his light kicking, trying to let me know where he wanted to go.

In one quick leap, Cadberi lay comforted by her side. Awakening to find Cadberi’s warm brown eyes gazing into her own, she smiled. It was the first smile her daughter had seen all week. Their bond was still there. Then amazingly, Lucia raised her hand and curled her fingers into rabbit ears. She wiggled them in an upward curve . . . “Rabbit.”

“Yes, Lucia,” I returned the sign “Cute Rabbit.” Lucia smiled again after signing what would be her final words to me. I continued to hold her hand while petting Cadberi with the other until she fell asleep. Two weeks later, Lucia died.

My bond with Lucia was more than a volunteer experience as we connected much deeper than teacher and student, or volunteer and patient. It was the melding of two souls. We had a language of our own with the sign of the rabbit.

Cadberi passed away quietly one afternoon, after eight years of service to those he loved. But he never forgot the sign, always nuzzling up close to my hands. Maybe in remembrance. Maybe in understanding. But mostly, reminding me that language doesn’t have to be a barrier to love.

Pamela B. Silberman

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