As part of my church fellowship, I serve as a deacon. (Usually when I say that, it either elicits one of two responses: First, no response – as to comfortably ignore it, thinking about whether or not I’m judging every contrary word that’s been said before. The other reaction is respect for the calling.) Truthfully, I didn’t want to do it. I’d be comfortable just sitting in the back row, doing whatever was required to make things easier on the fellowship. Having entered into my second year (after three years of intense training), it is different than what I imagined it would be. I attend meetings. I try to avail myself for events. I sit closer to the front of the church. But overall, the responsibilities are far from overwhelming. There is one area where my willingness is sometimes tested…
As part of the diaconate responsibilities, every month set aside a time to deliver communion to members of our fellowship who desire it but cannot physically come to church. (For those who don’t know, communion as we practice it is very simply put this: we give bread and wine (usually a wafer and grape juice) as it is symbolic of the dinner before Christ’s sacrifice where he asked that we do this in remembrance of him.)
There is one lady that we visit who looks around forty-two years old or so. She can’t speak, but she smiles so brightly when she sees us and through moans, we understand her feelings. She can’t walk and you can tell that she isn’t quite in control of her muscular functions. I don’t know what she suffers from, but her presence alone shames me for any time that I’ve ever felt ‘tired’ or ‘too busy’ to help out the fellowship. Her ability to smile, as if she had just heard the sixth number called out in the lotto drawing and looked up from an arm attached to a hand holding the matching ticket, is a tribute to Christ’s desire for us to live more abundantly (regardless of our infirmities.) She doesn’t get served communion, but our fellowshipping with her and singing makes her heart glad almost as much as it does ours.
There are a few others that have unfortunately become regulars. One gentleman that we visit used to stand almost a foot taller than me when I used to see him in church services (and that’s not hard to do). Now he stays in a veteran’s hospital and he’s lost his sight. I remember how he played the harmonica for our congregation a few times. Now he’s in a wheelchair — head hanging down as if it weighed a hundred pounds. He probably doesn’t recognize my voice even though I took him home once. What I notice most about seeing him unfortunately isn’t the man in the wheelchair himself. The fact that he’s in a veteran’s hospital causes my mind to go back to all of the footage of Saving Private Ryan and other such movies as I pass the faces on the way to see him. I wonder about what each man must have seen with eyes that gaze back at me as if to say, “If you only knew, son. If you know knew.” Most of them kind of smile and nod when you greet them in kind with a showing of the teeth. But some are just staring off into the abyss. Thankfully these men all appear to be living in the twilight of their lives. However, I shudder to think that the average age of the men in those chairs will start to decrease if we continue on our current course as a nation.
One thing about going to visit the man in the wheelchair that is uplifting is that his daughter is usually with him. We serve communion on Saturday mornings, but never the same Saturday mornings. (Sometimes it’s the second Saturday, but it could be the third or fourth. We try to schedule it around the availability of the group and more importantly the availability of those that we are there to serve.) The past few times that I’ve been with the group, she’s there spending time with him. You can tell that her visit isn’t one done out of pity or obligation. She’s there out of respect for a father who I’m sure was a positive influence on her life (to say the least). Sadly, the others that we visit rarely have any visitors. Occasionally we’ll see someone who’s being visited by a friend or a family member. But this is a rare, rare happenstance.
When I’m getting up to meet my group at the church on our Communion Saturday, my attitude is generally the same: “I wish I didn’t have to go……maybe I picked the wrong day on the calendar……it looks like rain is threatening – maybe nobody else will show up? Can’t quite go out on my own, now can I?!!” Then, after the service has been concluded and I realize that not only am I awake earlier I would have otherwise been on a Saturday morning even after our work has been done, but seeing the people who wish they could get out and be where I am – for whatever reason – forces me to enjoy and endure whatever the day may hold for me.
After we’ve visited our last house, I think about some of the folks. Maybe they’ll pop in my mind for a few moments during the rest of the Saturday. But rarely will they enter into my thoughts during the course of the week (other than to keep them in prayer collectively.) After Saturday, I guess my mind tries to block them out, for fear that their state will depress me. And for most of the people we visit, it’s easy – with the exception of one person.
When I went on my first communion visit, I was reminded by the more seasoned members of the routine and the things that we want to adhere to: “Don’t stay too long (so as not to impose on the people who have to be there for the sick while we’re serving)… Bring enough supplies in the event that others who are present may want to take part in communion… Don’t travel in groups bigger than three – we don’t want to be too large a group entering into someone’s house, etc.” There was one person who the group wanted to make me aware of. “Ms. Welch often cries when we visit.” But nothing could quite prepare me for what I would experience.
When you enter Room 627, you can tell that she’s present by the shape of the legs under the covers, feet upright, in the bed fathest from the entrance. As you move closer to the bed, you begin to make out the image of a woman that isn’t at all frail, but certainly not portly. She’s probably in her 70s. Her features remind me of many of my aunts and other elderly women that I’ve known over the years. Pictures taped around the bed remind you that this is a woman who was once no different from your sweet neighbor Doreen next door. I’m not quite sure how she came to be ill. And I’d rather not ask. The details of her room create a vivid enough image in my mind – I don’t need to know anything else. But what lingers in my mind – long after I’ve left her bedside – are her eyes.
When you first see Ms. Welch, her eyes will fixate on you – as if she’s trying to figure out whether you’re there to cause her harm or feed her medicine. It’s only after spending some time with her when you realize that her expression (that I’d clearly been misreading) is one of elation. Her words are always the same. Through lips that no longer house teeth, she utters the same words every month: “I’m so glad to see you.” It’s then when she starts to cry.
I remember when I was four and like the dumb, inquisitive mind that I was, I ate a moth ball. (Yeah, I know. But hey! Maybe you should be asking my mother what it was doing laying out in the open!?!) I don’t remember much. Funny thing is I distinctly recall the smell and the decision to pick it up and eat it. I don’t know – it’s just one of those dumb things that sticks with you. The memories are fuzzy, but I remember being in the hospital, in a crib, holding the banister while my mother, aunt and grandmother were visiting. For some reason they couldn’t stay and, even worse, I couldn’t go home. I remember my own cries of, “Don’t leave me, Mommy…don’t leave me here” through tears.
Maybe that’s why I can relate to Ms. Welch’s eyes so much.
Her looks of sadness convict me. They remind me of how swiftly a situation can come to rob you of what you knew as your life. Her eyes are very wide — almost bulging. They are probably among the more functional body parts she has. Her eyes appear to be trapped in a face attached to a body that wants to live. They’re eyes that are wondering how they got there and when they’re going to get to look at something other than that 19” television suspended in the corner that always plays UPN and the same old photographs. They’re eyes that are wondering where the rest of the people who claimed to love her are, and why haven’t they come to visit. They’re eyes that are now looking squarely at me, as if to inquire whether or not I’ve come to help her escape this madness and bring her back to her old home.
There was one time that my heart was glad to see something in the room other than Ms. Welch. A friend of hers had come to visit. She had even brought Ms. Welch a radio and a cassette of some blues music. Ms. Welch seemed to be enjoying the visit, as she had tons of attention. But even then there was still a certain sadness in her appearance. And those eyes, just as they had many times before, made their way to meet mine.
There’s no real satisfying ending to be found in what I’m writing. In a more ideal world, I’d take some time off and maybe spend the next few months visiting her every week (like Tuesdays With Morrie). Or perhaps I’d start a campaign of people who would donate an hour every day to visit Ms. Welch – so many people that she’d get sick of visitors. Or maybe even do what I’m planning to ask of our fellowship – to bring her to an outdoor event. Maybe the circus when it comes to visit the neighborhood. It might not be possible considering the fact that I’m not part of her immediate family and that we haven’t been able to make contact with the family. And then there’s the health risk of just taking her out. But something in my spirit just says that an outdoor visit (sort of like in Awakenings) might cheer her up for a bit. Something that she might be able to reflect on in the coming months. Or maybe I’m just trying to figure out a way to get the guilt of staring into those eyes away from me.
Leaving is always the hardest part. “I’m so glad to see you guys – you don’t know!” Her words are small and quiet – but they resonate loudly in my spirit. “I’ve been doing real, real bad.” She’s not talking about her physical condition from what I could gather. She seems to be talking about her heart. “I been down”. No training could have prepared me for this. We pray and we sing and we serve communion for the twenty minutes or so that we stay there. We try to remind her about God’s favor in her being among the living where others died. (Even the man in the veteran’s hospital, head hanging way down, would find solace in hearing those words.) But not Ms. Welch. Or perhaps she does find comfort in our words, but the pain of being lonely for so long overcomes any attempt that we might make to cheer her up. There are times when I shudder to think that the last outside visit she may have had was when our eyes met last month. As we say the closing words and put our jackets on, I realize that she isn’t nearly as weak as I was in that crib as a four year old. She doesn’t holler for us “not to leave”. Yet, I’m sure she could benefit from our staying awhile past the reason for the visit. And as I make my way around from the side of her bed, past the foot of the bed and down the hallway, no matter how far away I am when I turn to look at her, like the eyes of George Washington on a dollar bill, those eyes will be waiting to meet mine.
They say that “the eyes are the window to the soul”. I’ve been reminded of those words when I had to look into my sister’s eyes the night she found out that Aaliyah died. Or when I’ve looked at a female friend while giving her the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ speech. But never has this been more true than on those Saturdays when I have the honorable yet haunting responsibility of serving communion to Ms. Welch.