I hesitate to share this story for two reasons: 1) I don’t want to come across as a saint. 2) I don’t want to come across as an uncompassionate clod. But here it is…
As you may recall, Allyson and I had been intermittently visiting a couple, Jack and Jeanne, whom we met at a local nursing home. I got to know Jack especially well while transcribing his autobiography—one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
They so loved having visitors, and Jeanne utterly adored Allyson, so I tried to get out for a visit now and then, but not nearly so often as I should have. After a particularly long absence, we found that Jack had passed away. My heart was pierced for Jeanne, whose dementia made it hard for her to remember why he was gone and why he never came back. I resolved to visit her much more often, but I seldom made the time to drive out there, even when Allyson reminded me that we really ought to visit Miss Jeanne.
I’m not sure how long it had been—months, I’m sure—but we finally went out to the nursing home last Wednesday. Someone else was in her room. My heart sank when I learned that she’d passed away just a couple Fridays ago. Oh, why didn’t we visit more often?
But I have to confess that a tiny part of me—the little part—felt relieved. I was sorry she was gone, but relieved that I wouldn’t have to make time for trips to the nursing home, or feel guilty about not making the time. I tugged Allyson’s hand and started for the front door.
But another part of me immediately said, “No, no!” And that bigger part of me pulled me over to the information desk. I waited in uncomfortable silence for what seemed a very long time until one of the staff members acknowledged me.
I explained how Allyson and I had been visiting Jack and Jeanne, and how much they’d enjoyed seeing Allyson. I cleared my throat. “Can you think of another resident who might enjoy our company, someone who doesn’t get many visitors?”
The nurse rubbed her chin and then replied, “Well, yes. I guess you could visit Jackie in room 54.”
And that’s how Allyson and I ended up on our new mission, armed with only a first name and a room number. My heart pounded as we walked down the long hall. What would I say to this stranger? Would she think it rude of us to barge in? I said a quick prayer asking God for courage and for the right words.
Jackie was nothing like I expected. She was quite young, maybe in her 50s. “Are you Jackie?” I stammered.
She nodded and mumbled something unintelligible.
I ignored the heat in my cheeks and plowed on. “Hi, I’m Sarah, and this is Allyson. We…”
“Ohh!” Jackie exclaimed, reaching one hand toward Allyson. “She’s uh-DOR-bul.”
“Thank you,” I said.
She wiped some slobber off her chin, and I looked away. “I’m sorry,” she said.
I leaned closer, trying to decipher her slurred speech. “Pardon?”
I felt myself turning even redder. I waved my hand, brushing away her apology. “No problem,” I mumbled.
Allyson hid behind my leg and stared at the floor.
“What’s she afraid of?” Jackie asked, and then repeated herself so I could understand.
“Oh, she’s just shy,” I said, brushing a knuckle over Allyson’s cheek. I stared at the ceiling, wondering what I could possibly say to this stranger.
“Allyson’s in Kindergarten this year. She’s learning to read. And she loves to draw,” I said.
“Oh,” said Jackie.
Allyson nodded and beamed.
“She’s getting very good at drawing because she practices so much,” I went on. “Her favorite thing to draw is birds.”
Jackie’s face lit up, and I understood her next words perfectly. “Oh, I love birds!”
“Allyson loves to draw owls and robins. What’s your favorite bird?”
“I like d-doves.”
I turned to Allyson. “Do you think you could draw a dove for Miss Jackie?”
“And maybe we can get a book about birds and you could read it to her.”
I promised Jackie we’d return in two days, after Thanksgiving. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you!”
I felt humbled and almost guilty about her gratitude over our very brief visit and the promise of a dove picture.
We headed straight to the library for a birding guide, and Allyson drew an astonishingly good dove as soon as we got home. (Wish I’d thought to take a picture.) For the next two days, she kept reminding me that we mustn’t forget to go see Miss Jackie on Friday.
On Friday we presented her with Allyson’s picture and a Happy Thanksgiving note she’d carefully lettered. And then Allyson sat on the bed next to Jackie and read her a book about birds, with lovely prints of various species.
This time, Jackie not only thanked us, but she gathered both of us into tight bear hugs. Again I felt unworthy of such profuse gratitude.
On the way home, I felt even less worthy when Allyson gave voice to my own thoughts. “It really stinks in there.”
“Yes, honey. Sometimes people have trouble controlling their bladder when they get old or weak. That’s just how most nursing homes smell.”
“Yes, but it smelled worse in Miss Jackie’s room. Do you think it was Miss Jackie?”
“I don’t know, baby. Just try not to think about it. Definitely don’t ever say that you think it stinks, or you’ll hurt her feelings.”
As soon as I had a chance to be alone with God, I poured out all my ugly feelings. I confessed that I don’t really WANT to go to the nursing home every week even though I feel that I should, and not just because I’m too busy. I complained that I feel awkward because I can’t understand her, and I feel uncomfortable looking at her—or not looking at her.
“Help me to see Jackie as you see her,” I pleaded. “Help me see the beauty in her. And help me to really LOVE her. I don’t want to just do good deeds because I know you expect me to. I want to be kind to her out of love. I want to fall in love with her and take delight in spending time with her.”
I didn’t give much more thought to Jackie until this evening, when I arrived at Bible study (Margaret Feinberg’s Verbs of God). Our study leader, Roberta, asked what I thought of this week’s lesson: God Calls. I admitted that I hadn’t even looked at the study since Bill’s been out of town and it’s all I can do to hold our family’s routine together. “Is it about God calling Samuel?” I asked.
“Ah, ‘Here I am LORD, your servant is listening’? No. It’s about Jesus calling the disciples.” She said she hoped that the ladies would be able to recognize how God is calling us in our daily lives, and that we would respond as the disciples did, by following Jesus.
Are you calling me, God? I thought. I heard one word in reply. Jackie.
Is this really my calling right now? I wondered. Or is this just something I stumbled onto?
I didn’t have to wait long for my confirmation. We started the study with a video about a woman who went on a mission trip to an Asian orphanage. The video cut to pictures of a baby in a crib, a baby with a horrendously deformed face. She had not only a cleft palate and cleft lip, but also a cleft face. A red crevice ran diagonally across her entire right cheek, her nose was in the wrong place, and her blind left eye bulged from its socket.
You could hear the sharp intake of breath as many of us gasped in unison. The woman explained how she was drawn to this baby who had no chance of a normal life. “All I saw when I looked at her was beauty,” she said. “I knew I had to help this child.”
I sobbed quietly as this woman recited back my own prayers to me. And I let the tears fall as she described her experiences with just holding this baby and loving her. “Help me love that way,” I prayed.
The missionary didn’t just give the baby a few hugs and go on her way. No, she refused to give up. She found a surgeon who could rebuild her face, and she went through all the red tape of a foreign adoption. Three and a half years after she met the baby, she took her home to America.
Tomorrow Allyson and I will visit Jackie again. We’ll bring her coleslaw, her favorite food, and Allyson will read her another story, probably about birds. And I will probably feel awkward, but I’m praying that God will go with me, and that He will let me feel his heart for Jackie. And maybe we will all begin to fall in love.
Please keep us in your prayers. Specifically, I need God to show me ways to make Jackie feel loved. Any ideas?