My hands were weak, but I reached them out to feebler ones than mine, and over the shadow of my life, stole the light of a peace divine. Frances Harper
This past year I worked in a nursing home providing psychotherapeutic support for the residents. My residents varied in capacity to process and articulate thoughts. Some were very hard of hearing, even with hearing aids. Often, residents did not have false teeth or did not wear them. Communication was garbled. Other times residents spoke so fast or low that I could barely hear them. Despite these difficulties or perhaps because of them, I had the opportunity to see God. God emerged through our process of connecting. Sometimes this connection had little to do with me other than showing up to partake in the Glory of the Lord. Let me share some stories. Although they may not seem miraculous, there was a deep richness in my experience that told me God was there.
One thing that revealed God to me was the unconditional positive regard my residents had for me even though they did not always remember me. I would usually see them once a week and even up to my last day, to my surprise, I still had a resident who was among the more cognitively intact ask me who I was. Our routine consisted of an introduction, statement of purpose, and light conversation that was followed by assessment and intervention. They usually accepted my intrusion into their lives. Sometimes they would even offer me food and drink. On the way out of a resident’s room one day she said, “I don’t know you but I love you.” Hearing this and saying it back became natural. These words never ceased to evoke joy when such moments of clarity made sense out of it all.
A resident asked me one day, “Are you the one who talks to people?” This woman spoke in a soft voice with difficulty due to cerebral palsy. It was so humbling. What grieved my heart was that I could not see her before our contract ended with that nursing home. Another day, a resident walked out of her room with me after our session. She linked her arm with mine as we walked down the hall. She told the nurse that I was her “listening friend.” I was so thankful for that. She had a lot to say, but words eluded her due to her progressive cognitive impairment. The best I could do was to respond to the emotional content of what she was saying. I learned so much about her, but it was not the content of her stories that moved me. Like the woman before, it was the sweetness of her spirit that shined through.
There were several residents who loved to sing religious hymns. One woman spoke so low and quick that I could barely hear her until one day she wanted to sing “In the Garden.” It was the only time I really heard her voice. We sang every verse. Another woman had to wear an oxygen mask connected to a large tank in her room. She was lonely but found comfort in the Lord. She would ask me if I knew particular religious hymns, which I usually did not know. Then she would sing them to me. Her raspy voice was weak and yet grew strong as she sang with all her heart. She told me about the importance of God and of having faith. One of the last things she wrote for me was “God is real.” She was a reflection of God for me.
One day when I was talking to the resident who called me her “listening friend,” she began to talk about her love for her family and their love for her. Despite her cognitive impairment, she was able to process how they demonstrated their love for each other. She ended by saying how much she loved God. We talked very briefly about how she knew God loved her. Our conversation meandered as cohesive thoughts would come and go. It had been some time, so I was preparing to go. The resident seemed to get upset. She stumbled over her words and then as I reached the door she was able to say with unusual clarity, “But I want to know what God would say.” I told her that I was not sure, but that I did know that God would say, “I love you.” She smiled and reached out her hand for mine.
With the end of this past year, my work at the nursing home also came to an end. I prepared my residents for my last day and wondered how many would grasp that I was leaving. One of my residents would often say, “I am 90 years old!” She inspired me for she accepted her physical decline and the reality of death with such grace. It was not uncommon for her to grab my hand, squeeze it, and slightly shake it at the end of our sessions. She would look at me with tenderness in her eyes, but would never say a word. This is how my last day ended. Before I left, I walked up to her to say “goodbye.” Once again, she grabbed my hand and we looked at each other. This time she reflected the finality of it all. I studied her face and marveled at the thought that the next time I would see her would be in heaven.
Ann M. Callahan has a doctorate in social work from the University of Tennessee with a license in clinical social work. She has over 22 years of social work related experience resulting in a range of clinical, administrative, educational, and research skills. Dr. Callahan teaches social work for the University of Kentucky. Her primary area of research is in the spiritual dimensions of the therapeutic relationship. Dr. Callahan is currently working on a book about spirituality and hospice social work for Columbia University Press. For more information, please visit http://dranncallahan.info/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org.