From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

Just Being There

It was my junior year of high school, and I needed to knock out twenty hours of community service—and fast. My ethics teacher had given us months to get it done, but with everything else I had going on, I’d managed to procrastinate right down to the last two weeks of the semester.

Lucky for me, there was a convalescent home a few blocks down the street from my school. To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to it. I’d always had an aversion to hospitals and convalescent homes. Still, I needed the hours—and how bad could it be? I could walk over after class let out, spend a few hours there, and voila, obligation fulfilled in no time.

On my first afternoon there, one of the nurses introduced me to a group of wheelchair-bound ladies playing penny-ante poker out in the central courtyard, under the shade of a gazebo. They always met to play poker at that same time each afternoon, so I became a member of their bunch. They couldn’t walk, but their minds were sharp. We’d joke and share stories between each hand.

My last day of volunteering at the convalescent home was a Friday. I was in high spirits as I arrived that afternoon. As much as I enjoyed the sassy grandmothers and their stories, I was still a teenager. I had other things I wanted to do and people my own age with whom to hang out.

But the gazebo was empty. A nurse explained that the physical therapy sessions earlier that day had put everybody’s normal schedule out of whack. There’d be no poker under the gazebo that afternoon.

I asked the nurse what I should do. Not having anything specific for me, she led me to the lounge reserved for the residents with Alzheimer’s. It was a gloomy, cavernous room. Those within sat quietly on couches or trembled from place to place with no specific destination. It was age, sickness, loss of mental faculties and impending death. It was, in short, everything that frightened me about the idea of growing old.

There was a small, old-fashioned organ sitting in the corner. There was no rhyme or reason to its being there. The nurse noticed me looking at it.

“Why don’t you play for them?” she said.

“But I can’t play the organ,” I protested. “I can’t even play piano!”

“They won’t know the difference,” she said, leaning in confidentially. Before I could reply, she’d turned and walked out.

So there I was—seventeen years old, surrounded by Alzheimer’s patients and not a clue as to what I should do. I looked around the room again, hunting for that one face, that one pair of eyes that wasn’t adrift in a sea of memories. I didn’t find it.

Suddenly, that organ was looking pretty good.

I sat down at it and fiddled with the different keys, buttons and levers. After that, I tried to plunk out simple songs, one key at a time. “La Cucaracha” and “Daisy” had never sounded so bad. If that organ could think, it would have crawled away in shame.

Halfway through my off-season rendition of “Joy to the World,” I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked over and saw an old man in a bright red sweater shuffling toward me. He walked slowly, but with purpose.

“Hey, young fella,” he said, wiping at his wet mouth with a shaking handkerchief. “You play pretty good.”

“No . . . I mean, thanks, but . . . I’m just messing around. . . .”

“It’s a good job, playing piano. That, and plumbing.”

“Yeah . . . I guess.”

“Plumbers and piano players, fella. They can find work anywhere. No matter where they go in the whole wide world, they’ll find work.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

He patted me on the shoulder with a hand that was gnarled and dry with age.

“You keep up with that piano playing, young fella. It’ll take you places. Piano players and plumbers. They work anywhere—you remember that.”

With that, he turned and shuffled away, as randomly as he’d appeared in the first place.

As soon as he was gone, the nurse hurried over to me. I didn’t realize she’d been watching. Not knowing what I’d done wrong, I panicked.

“Was he talking to you?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

She stared at me.

“I’m sorry,” I blurted. “I didn’t mean to cause . . .”

“Sorry? You didn’t do anything wrong.” She looked over at the old man. He was sitting on one of the couches at the other end of the room, a faint smile on his lips. “He and his wife got sick around the same time. They’ve both lived here for years. She died a month ago. He hasn’t spoken a word to anybody since then. Until now. What did you say to him? How’d you get him to open up?”

“I didn’t say anything. I didn’t do anything. I was just here.”

Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Patrick Seitz

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