My 100 Year Old Teacher
This is my Great Uncle Leo. Leo spent his young adult years in California as a machinist. He didn't like the work much. He was a welder and the smell of the solder bothered his nose. But, this man loves to walk and I'm pretty sure he loved the California sunshine. He lived in Los Angeles and eventually came back to his hometown of Altoona, PA. He moved into his parents' house and eventually owned the house. He continues to talk about that house each time that I visit him and tells me how much he wants to go back.
Leo never got married. I remember him as a pretty quiet guy. When our other great uncles showered us with cards and attention on our birthdays and at Christmas, Leo stayed quiet in a corner by himself. He was always neatly clothed in dress pants, a sweater or a suit jacket and a felt hat. That felt hat now sits on top of his closet in the nursing home, dusty and forgotten by its owner.
I started to visit my great uncle when my dad, Bill received a Mantle Cell Lymphoma diagnosis and couldn't go into public places, including nursing homes. Although he is the power of attorney and primary care-taker for Leo outside of the nursing home, he could no longer visit. Leo didn't mind. He believes that my father stole his house and sold it for personal gain. Of course, my dad needed to sell the house to be able to afford nursing home care for Leo. I felt for him that he had no one to visit him. So, I began to be a friend and visitor.
My time with Leo has been fun. I have learned so much about aging. I've learned about independence. I've learned about the balance between needing care and fighting for freedom. I've seen the bright smile of an old man that in a moment, seems ageless. In a way, in this strange year of my life, he has been my teacher. I have been thankful for this time. I know he is too.
A few weeks ago, when it was warm in the sun and breezy in the shade, I decided to take Leo outside. I had to get special permission from the ladies at the desk. They care deeply about his safety. I helped Leo into clean clothes and then into a sweater. (Leo is cold most of the time because he only likes to wear pajamas.)
We went outside on a short walkway, around some flower beds planted in plenty with petunias. We picked a few so he could hold them. He smiled at the flowers and the sunshine. We then sat under a tent where there were a few picnic tables. We sort of chatted. Leo can't hear very well without his hearing aid - actually even with his hearing aid. We had been friends for about a year and he always greets me and asks about my family. On this day, he noticed that it was pretty chilly in the shade and thought we should go in because he worried that I was cold. I didn't expect that selfless viewpoint in this fellow that had sat in the corner at family functions.
We had a nice time outside. We set off the alarm coming back in and then got him resettled in his room. It felt so good to let him have time outside of that place. When I visit, I think about how much time he spends looking out of that one window onto a parking lot. He notices the ladies eating their lunches daily at a picnic table or knows if its breezy by how the "plants" (weeds) flutter. He shows me, each time I come, his beautiful view of the "windmills" (wind turbines) far away on the mountaintop. You can only see them from a skewed perspective from the window. He is grateful for these small things. He inspires grace in me with each visit.
After I saw how well he did with going outside and how good it was for him, I decided to go in and ask if I might be able to take him for a drive. (I thought it might be good practice depending on our plans for his 100th birthday)
The head nurse at the desk, Fran, called my dad to ask his permission.
"This is the nursing home calling about Leo. Your daughter would like to take him out and we wanted to be sure that was okay with you."
"In a car?!?"
"Yes, in a car." (We all proceeded to laugh.)
"Sure - its fine with me."
So, we were off! Well - not exactly. I got him into a sweater and the nurses helped him into the car. We folded up his crumb-covered wheelchair and placed it into my trunk. I buckled him in and shut the door. I drove slowly down the road, thinking that he hadn't been on that road since he entered the nursing home years ago.
We chatted a little. He wanted to go to the bank to get money to buy a book. I know that his account doesn't have money in it anymore since it goes to pay the nursing home. But, I didn't want to break it to him or have an argument with a feeble old man in front of a bank. That might look pretty suspicious!
So we decided to go to his favorite place: Everything Natural. He was looking for a book or information on acidic foods and foods that are alkaline. This is a very important concept to Leo and there hasn't been a visit that he hasn't worked really hard to remember both words and explain the health concepts behind it to me.
I helped him out of the car and into his wheelchair. We went into the store and were greeted right away. Leo wasted no time in asking about books on this topic. The clerk told him that they don't have as many books as they used to. She found a photocopy of some information on the subject of alkaline and acidic foods. This was not what he was looking for. We went through the store just so he could see for himself. No books. We wandered a bit. I stopped to see if I could buy him a snack there. He wheeled himself off to the front of the store and I chatted with another employee about alkaline water. While I selected a bottle for Leo, I mentioned his name and the employee burst out, "That's Leo!?" I said, "Yes - do you know him?" She replied, "Oh yes - he used to come in here all the time!" She called, "Susan! Its Leo!" Susan came running and they all greeted him, hugged him, and were so glad to see him. They shared about how they always wondered what happened to him, how he suddenly disappeared from the store.
Leo didn't remember these ladies, but felt so good to be missed. This man had connected with people in his day-to-day life and it felt good to watch the whole scene play out. These ladies missed seeing this man! They cared about him. It was a wonderful thing to witness.
When You Find Exactly What You're Looking For:
I explained to Uncle Leo's new-old friends at the store what he was looking for. Susan had a guess. She produced a laminated placemat that was colorful and had organized explanations of foods that were more or less acidic and foods that fell into various categories of being alkaline. I have never seen that man's eyes light up the way they did when he saw that placemat. We found exactly what he had pictured in his mind. I bought it for him as a gift and he was so happy to bring it back to his room at the nursing home.
I took his portrait with the menu rolled up right outside of his favorite store. Although its just a mobile phone photo in quality, I can't imagine a more perfect portrait of Uncle Leo.
We went for a short drive next. We drove to my parent's house and I brought my dad outside. Even though he couldn't come in to the nursing home, he could certainly see Uncle Leo outside. My dad's week of intense chemo and bone marrow transplant would begin the next day. It was good for them to catch up a bit and see each other. Soon, though, I could see that Uncle Leo was pretty exhausted from his outing, so we said goodbye and I brought him back to his room.
Sweet Good-bye and Lesson Reflections:
We came back to find Uncle Leo's room all cleaned up. I got him back in time for lunch and slid his sweater back onto its hanger in his shared closet. We chatted just a little and then I instinctively held his cheeks in my hand, nearly like he was my own son, and told him how great he did today. I hugged him good-bye and to my surprise, he planted a kiss on my cheek. He had said thank you a few times. He was tired, but so grateful for a re-acquaintance with a small part of his old world.
In our time together this year, Leo has taught me about aging, about the cognitive dissonance sets in about what we are actually able to do and what we need help with as we age, about the fire within us that keeps us yearning for independence and for something unexpected to happen. In seeing his lack of friends, I have learned what happens to a quiet soul who also happens to have trouble hearing while lving in a nursing home. But in the moments that Uncle Leo's face lights up when I visit, I know he has also taught me about laughter and joy in a different way than I've ever understood the concepts before.
In just a few weeks, Leo will turn 100 years old. Its hard to believe really. On this day, I reflected on how this man of nearly 100 years and my paternal grandmother's brother who was a stranger to me only a year ago was a bit of a teacher to me. I think I began to visit him not only because my parents no longer could but also for the sake of his own mother. He was a stranger to me, really, when I was a child, but I keep thinking that he was Maria's little boy. And he wasn't just her little boy, he was the oldest- the child that made her a mother. Suddenly when I think of him like that, my eyes get misty and I just can't help but want to visit and care for him and be a friend to him for the sake of Maria.
Everyone is Your Teacher:
This podcast episode by Rob Bell is what was part of the inspiration for thinking about my time with Uncle Leo in the way I have. You can listen to the episode by clicking here.
If you'd like to see a sample of my other posts, check out my previous post titled Senior Stars: Rachel. Telling personal stories is an important component of my photographic work!
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