On a warm summer evening, I found Sandy in the activity room of Willow Court. Sandy spent a lot of time in this room. In fact, if the nursing home had given an award to the resident who attended the most organized activities, Sandy would have won hands down. However, her attendance had little to do with her interest in the activities. Instead, she spent her afternoons and evenings there because she could not be left alone.
When she was 55 years old, Sandy was diagnosed with a rare neurological condition that would gradually steal her independence and eventually end her life. When I met Sandy at the age of 57, her motor functions were severely compromised. She was under the care of hospice and unable to perform the most basic functions, such as walking, talking and even sitting upright unassisted. But her mind was sharp and her smile was warm. I liked her immediately.
Whenever I found Sandy in the activity room, I would ask if she wanted to participate in the activity or do something else. Most of the time, she was ready for a change of pace. So we would say our “farewells” and take off to raid the nursing home candy store or work on the journal we were writing for her daughter. However, I began to notice that Sandy’s interest in Tuesday night activities was growing.
This Tuesday evening Keith, one of the activity coordinators, had organized a game of trivia. Sandy communicated that she wanted to stay, so I pulled up a chair. When Sandy and I teamed up, we were like the tin man and the scarecrow in the three-legged race at the fair. In this case, Sandy often knew the answers but was unable to articulate the words. And I had a knack for taking her words and completely screwing them up. Luckily, both of us were able to laugh (sometimes uncontrollably) at our efforts. So, as long as we stayed a few points ahead of Ethel, who decided trivia hour was a good time for a nap, we were gold.
Things usually got a little awkward for me at the end of an activity. Sandy, who was fiercely independent, would want to go to her room. But, knowing that she couldn’t be left alone and that I had to be going home soon, I was torn. Regardless, I always asked Sandy what she wanted to do. I could never have guessed what her plans were this evening.
Because she couldn’t speak, Sandy would communicate to me with a combination of facial expressions and stiff-arm gestures. For example, if she wanted to go somewhere, she would lift her arm in the direction she wanted to move. To make sure I understood her correctly, I would verbalize what I thought she was telling me. She would confirm with a lift of her eyebrows. Or when I got it wrong, which was often the case, she would shoot me a good-natured smirk and roll her eyes.
This evening, Sandy lifted her arm and I pushed her toward the door. But, when we approached the door, Sandy reached out to grab the archway and stop our movement. This was new.
“Okay — you don’t want to leave. Where do you want to go?” I asked, perplexed.
Sandy mumbled something forcefully, but not distinguishable.
I looked around the room. There was the table, the T.V. (which she never watched), Ethel…and there was Keith. He was sitting at the desk.
“Do you want to see Keith?” I inquired.
“Mmmm Hmmm!” She replied.
Okay. This was going to be weird. Sandy could not talk. And I had no idea what she wanted to tell him, so I couldn’t speak for her. But, I pushed her over to him anyway. (I never argued with Sandy.)
“Keith,” I got his attention. “Sandy would like to speak with you.” I took a step back. It was his turn at bat.
Keith stood up. “Hey, Sandy. What’s up?” He moved closer to her and crouched a bit.
That’s when it happened. Sandy reached out with both arms and all the force she could muster. Grabbing him by the shirt collar, Sandy yanked Keith to her.
“Help!” (Yes, those were his exact words. He was clearly confused and probably a bit frightened.)
I stared in disbelief as she drew his face close to hers and planted a big, fat, kiss right on his lips. Then she released him.
Keith sprung back to his feet. His face was deep crimson, like he had been hanging upside down on the monkey bars for the past five minutes. The contrast of his silver hair against his red skin was stark. Keith was stunned to silence.
“Well then, Sandy,” I interjected. “Should we head to your room?”
Other than a few giggles on the way back to her room, Sandy and I never discussed this incident. It was one of those things that simply didn’t need to be verbalized. Sandy was attracted to Keith and she made her move. End of story. And even though her romance with Keith never materialized, her actions that day communicated a great deal about our relationship.
You see, Sandy and I didn’t see each other as “volunteer” and “patient”. In fact, a few weeks into our visits I started feeling uncomfortable wearing my identification tag. Even though I couldn’t put my finger on it, something didn’t feel right. In time, I came to realize that while I was still committed to the mission of hospice, I was motivated by a greater purpose. Sandy was my friend. And I was hers.
What Sandy Taught Me:
I could publish a book on everything Sandy Marie Hanson taught me. In fact, I’ve considered writing a “Thelma and Louise” type novel about two friends, one who is terminally ill, who embark on one last adventure. So, I certainly can’t address everything here. But, there is one lesson that stands out in this regard.
Friendship is not a verb. It is not something you do. It is something you are.
There are many things I did when I was with Sandy. I pushed her wheelchair. I helped her dress. I accompanied her to activities. I asked her about her daughter. I brushed her hair. I sopped up her Diet Coke when she knocked it on the floor (which was a fairly regular occurrence.) I cleaned chocolate frosting from under her fingernails. I even fed her what may have been her last meal. But those things did not make me her friend.
Because of her situation, and although she tried her hardest, Sandy was physically incapable of performing most activities. Even the simple gesture of saying “thank you” was a chore. And yet, I knew that Sandy was one of the most special friends I would ever have.
It wasn’t what we did when we were together that made us friends. It is who we were when we were together. We were kind. We were patient. We were understanding. We were open-minded. We were thoughtful. We were courageous. We were silly. We were forgiving. We were loving.
We were friends.