71. Teachings of a Clown

71. Teachings of a Clown

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

Teachings of a Clown

Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.

~James Matthew Barrie

I listened closely to the nursing report for my newest hospice assignment. The more Tina told me about the patient, the more doubt I felt. The nightmare list of patient problems seemed endless: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), quadriplegic, limited mobility remains in right arm and torso, unable to speak, feeding tube. How could I possibly be of help to this man? Where would I start? What would I say? How would I say it?

I’d been an RN for three decades and had cared for similar patients, but volunteering for respite care as a layperson is another ball game. Respite care involves going to the patient’s home and assessing how I might support both the patient and the family. Being an RN, I am often assigned the more challenging patients. I think this new one fit the bill.

The next week found me driving to the country to see the daunting mystery man. After several wrong turns and a lot of dust, I pulled into the correct driveway. It took several knocks for a spry, gray-haired lady in jean capris to open the front door. She was warm in her welcome but politely let me know I’d chosen the never-used door assigned to strangers and the UPS deliveryman. Not the best first impression I wanted to make.

Mary introduced herself as the patient’s mother. The warm smile and twinkling eyes soon absolved me of my wrong door sin.

Why was I so nervous?

Mary showed me to the living room couch while she finished getting her middle-aged son up to a recliner with the aid of a Hoyer Lift. Her agility spoke to her having done this before. Then I remembered a piece of my earlier report, “Patient’s sister also died of ALS.” Mary had cared for her daughter, and now cared for her son, while watching the cruel, progressive disease chip away pieces of her own flesh and blood. I cringed with uneasiness and guilt.

Next, I met my new patient, who presented as a paradox. The handsome six-foot-four man barely fit the oversized recliner. His eyes had the same sparkle as his mom’s, his hair was combed precisely, and his right hand clasped a wadded red farmer’s handkerchief while his body involuntarily leaned a bit to the left. But it was his long legs that really caught my attention. They stuck out from his lap blanket and showcased one-of-a-kind knee-highs with horizontal stripes of red, yellow, blue, and neon green.

Glancing up to see the big mischievous grin on his face, I could only chuckle and shake my head. He was the one making me feel at ease in his home. My doubt, fear, and nervousness were gone. I’d just met Wul-wee, a professional clown. Oh, yeah, we’d both be fine.

We quickly found much in common: we were hard workers, country-raised, faith-filled, writers, and both were trying to live life well with a chronic illness. I have multiple sclerosis.

We once talked about how we grieved for our losses. Wul-wee calmly stated, “I miss walking in the woods and talking out loud to the person next to me.”

I replied, “I miss being a nurse.”

Along the way, my new friend Wul-wee became a patient teacher and mentor. He taught me how to talk with a person who can’t talk. Looking closely and listening well are the basics. Wul-wee could say a lot with a gaze, squint, nod, tiny shrug or a busy index finger. If body language didn’t suffice, he’d resort to a hunt and peck on his iPad that converted his entry into a tinny, robotic computer voice. Pretty cool. I learned butting in to guess his thoughts while he typed did not help. It was rude and no different than interrupting someone speaking out loud.

As the ALS thief continued to rob my friend of functioning body parts, he continued to write daily with his right index finger. During the time I knew Wul-wee, he completed a biography, Balloons N Stuff, and began his second manuscript, an autobiography.

I teased him: “You are such a show off and make me look like a slacker.” My first book was published that year and during the next eight months I had written a total of three chapters of my second book.

He volleyed with one shoulder shrug: “You’re a slow poke.” There was no need to use the keyboard for that one.

So we talked a lot about books and a lot about clowning. Clowning had been both a passion and ministry for Wul-wee. He taught others in clown school and received honors nationally. His antics and balloon sculpting touched the lives of children and adults. I know his outreach ministry will continue with his book. It saddens me he did not get to see that happen.

One time when I arrived for a visit, Wul-wee greeted me with, “I’m having a party, a celebration today.”

“Well, you got me, what are you celebrating?” I asked.

“It’s my two-year anniversary of ALS.” He grinned widely, paused, and waited for my light bulb to go on.

Aaaah, I got it. He had beaten ALS for two years and he was “still kicking.” Remarkable. That was powerful for me. Could I ever be that strong?

Wul-wee taught me so much, the biggest being to make the most of what you can do and celebrate life every day. I appreciated my time with David W. Ritzert, but it was too short. David, his devoted wife Vi (alias Baggy Geenz, the clown), and I talked about the whole crazy process of death and dying. There is no road map. There is no magic. There is just living life well until you can’t any more. These two got it. They were true role models for anyone meeting a life challenge. Their strong faith in God guided them daily and their love for each other ran deep. They knew there was a time for holding hands and crying, and a time to load up and head to a Pink Floyd concert.

The three of us discussed what the book cover of Balloons N Stuff might look like. I was shown a picture under consideration that looked a lot like David’s wedding picture where he wore green and white clown shoes with his tuxedo. The picture’s viewpoint is from the head of David’s hospital bed, looking over white sheets and ends with the same two gigantic green and white clown shoes, sticking out and forming a really big V. It’s perfect! When I think of my dear friend, David, that hilarious picture will forever be branded in my mind. Thank you Wul-wee!

~Mary Ellen Ziliak

More stories from our partners