It was a cold day in December when my grandma fell and broke her hip. She was 91, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. Before her accident she was always on the move; she did her own cooking, shopping, gardening, and laundry. Now she was confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home. Needless to say she was not a happy camper.
I visited my her whenever I could, but I didn’t enjoy it. Everything about it made me uncomfortable – from the smell of ammonia that seemed to permeate every inch of the place to the squeaking of the wheelchairs on the tile floor. But the hardest part was seeing all the sick, wrinkled, dilapidated old people.
One day, I visited my grandma in the day room where all the residents sit together and do different activities. As soon as the residents saw me – a young person! – they got excited.
“Miss, miss! Can you get me some water?”
“Young lady, come here. I want to tell you something.”
“Girl in the blue skirt, do you know where the nurse is?”
It reminded me of what happened to me when I was a little kid visiting the Claws and Paws, a zoo where you can feed the animals. My parents gave me crackers to feed the sheep. I walked into the pen and held my crackers out in front of me. In a split second I surrounded by all the sheep. They bleated at me and butted their heads against my legs. I dropped the crackers and ran out screaming.
Now in the nursing home, I was reliving the experience.
But I’m an adult, I reminded myself. I can handle this. No running out the door. No screaming. I took a deep breath and walked over to my grandmother.
She was thrilled to see me. (Apparently, having a granddaughter visit you is a huge status symbol in a nursing home.) We had a nice conversation, but while we were talking an old man, with watery blue eyes and a bald head, wheeled over to me. “Miss,” he said, “I notice you’re wearing glasses.”
“That’s right.” I said.
“You know, some people say ‘girls in glasses shouldn’t make passes.’”
I smiled and nodded politely. Poor guy, he’s completely senile, I thought to myself.
“Do you know the date?” he asked me.
“It’s the tenth of December,” I replied.
“Remember! Remember the tenth of December!” he said, pointing a warning finger at me.
“Uh… sure,” I mumbled. I gave him another keep-the-crazy-man-happy smile and turned back to my grandmother.
Shortly after that I said goodbye to my grandma and left. That night, I had a hard time sleeping. I thought back to my visit at the nursing home.
“Remember! Remember the tenth of December!”
I sat up in my bed. I had suddenly remembered that I had an important paper that had to be submitted by December tenth at midnight. The professor had said that if we didn’t get it in by midnight we shouldn’t bother handing it in at all. I had finished the paper a week ago, but I had forgotten to submit it.
I dashed to the computer and managed to send the paper just in time.
I am very grateful to that old man from the nursing home. Not only did he unwittingly remind me to submit my paper, he also taught me an important lesson. How often do we assume that we have all the answers? How often do we think that we’re better than the people we meet as we go through life? I was arrogant when I walked into that nursing home. I assumed that there was nothing that a group of senile octogenarians could do to help me.
I was wrong. In the words of Ben Zoma in Ethics of the Fathers (4:1): Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.