In a wheelchair beside the nurses’ station, a tiny old woman sits, eyes closed, lips parted, hands folded in her lap. Her head droops to one side. Ragged wisps of white hair stray across her forehead. Her nightgown is rumpled, one slipper has dropped to the floor exposing a pale bare foot. She could be asleep, perhaps even comatose. Visitors pass, a nurse rushes by and jostles her wheelchair but offers no apology. No one notices. It’s as if she’s invisible.
As nursing homes go, it’s a good one. It’s so clean it’s almost unsettling,, the furnishings expensive and inoffensive, the staff’s crisp white uniforms fairly rustle as they pass. Vivaldi plays softly in the background. They try hard. But it is still a nursing home. Where no one wants to be.
A small dog being led by a visitor trots by, then suddenly pulls at his lead, resisting his owner’s attempts to move forward. The visitor tugs at the lead, averting her eyes from the woman in the wheelchair. But the little dog is determined. He sits down by the woman’s wheelchair as if he has reached his destination. After a few seconds, the woman opens her eyes and raises her head. A smile spreads slowly across her weathered face at the sight of the little dog. Her watery eyes twinkle. A soft voice breaks the silence. It has a characteristic honeyed lilt, a pattern of speech once cultivated in finishing schools for proper southern ladies.
“Well, hello there! And aren’t you a pretty little thing?” A bony finger reaches down and strokes the little dog’s ear. He stands, reciprocates with a swift lick of her finger, then sits again, tongue hanging sidewise, looking up at her expectantly. They regard each other silently. She reaches down and gently strokes his back.
She turns to the visitor, “Do you take good care of him?”
“Yes, I do, ” the visitor says.
“Well, make sure you do, now, ” she admonishes. “He needs a lot of care.”
“Don’t worry,” the visitor assures her, “I take good care of him, I promise.” A few minutes pass as the woman talks softly to the little dog.
Finally, she looks up at the visitor, as if to dismiss her. Thank you.” she says, smiling, returning her hands to her lap. “Can he come back sometime?”
“You’re welcome, “ says the visitor. “And of course! I’ll bring him to see you again.”
The woman smiles as the visitor and the little dog walk away down the hall.
We tend to avoid people who seem needy, especially the elderly. Perhaps we are afraid we can’t help, that we will become entangled in their problems, that it will take too much of our time. But as the little dog knew, people are not always what they seem. And our gifts do not have to be big ones. The little dog gave the only thing he had to give, his attention and his love, and it was enough. In the words of Mother Teresa, “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”