Decades ago, my friends and I, along with our pastor, traipsed into a nursing home, intent on “cheering them up,” or so Pastor said.
I had just joined my high school band. My trumpet skills lacked, but I knew the others would cover for me – a clarinetist, a pianist, a guitarist and a few singers.
We huddled near the piano, shifting from one foot to another, pretending to tune up and making fake conversation. We didn’t look at the residents unless absolutely necessary.
Why we were so afraid, I can’t fathom now. Perhaps because my mother feared nursing homes – chiefly becoming resident in one. It didn’t matter that this one felt far less sinister than the facilities she envisioned. Pleasant even.
Most of us fear things we can’t control or don’t understand; things like getting old and losing independence; perhaps incapacitated. Even having to live with a bunch of strangers. Dying young feels preferable to all that.
Residents gathered around, some in wheelchairs, some on couches. They fixed rheumy eyes on us. They drank us in. Willed us to see them. To smile, stay longer, talk a bit.
I know now, decades later, what some of them saw in that bunch of fresh-faced youth. Kids that looked exactly the way they still felt in their souls, on their best days – even if their bodies and skin had betrayed them. Beautiful. Budding with possibilities. Alive inside. Just…invisible to others.
We played our best, except for during the gas leak. It exploded at forte from the vicinity of the gentleman in the wheelchair beside the piano; loud enough that I could hear it over my trumpet blats. It extended long, as though held by a fermata. We all lost our composure, but he seemed to appreciate his music more than ours, anyway.
We packed up our instruments. We pasted on smiles. We collected the hymnbooks, said good-bye and hurried home.
Years later, when I worked in a nursing home and became comfortable around the elderly, I began to understand Mom’s fear. Too often when we arbitrarily group people together simply because of their common states – sick people, old people, young people, disabled people, incarcerated people, immigrant people; whatever – they begin to fade as individuals. In our well-intentioned attempts to manage society, it’s far too easy to strip the pinnacle of God’s creation of the incalculable worth and beautiful uniqueness he has given to each person.
At 22, I quit my nursing home job because I sensed myself nearing that edge.
I’m grateful that Jesus doesn’t see us in groups. In his eyes we never lose our value as individuals created in our Father’s image. If you feel invisible in your group – whatever it’s called, remember that. And neither are there group rates on salvation – that gift God offers through Jesus Christ to each and every person.
Next time you visit someone in a nursing home, please remind them that God knows, God loves and God cares.