When I showed up at the designated time to sit and record the resident’s life story at the long-term care facility where my mother lived before her recent death, the activity director informed me that my resident was ill and that our visit was cancelled. I was skeptical. This has happened before. So I asked the activity director if I could just pop in and say hello to the resident.
I knocked on the door even though her door was wide open, and I was told to come in. My friend, the resident, was lying in bed.
She told me that she wasn’t feeling well and that our interview should be cancelled indefinitely. Yes, I suspected as much…anxiousness about the interview.
“Another day,” I assured her. And because I suspected that her stress regarding our interview had caused her to feel ill, I asked her if she had second thoughts. “My story isn’t very interesting anyways,” she admitted. She sat up a little in bed.
I chuckled and reassured her that when the activity director told me a story about the resident’s trip to Canada, solo, as a young woman, that I found it not only interesting but courageous, and that I was anxious to hear more stories.
She sat up straighter in bed. “Now take a seat. Where’s your recorder? Are you going to take notes?” I burst out laughing and asked, “Is the interview back on?”
I prompted her with a couple of questions, and she elaborated about her family growing up in Europe, her trip to Canada, and her marriage. I was enthralled. Like many of us who grew up listening to stories about our parents who immigrated to North America, and sat in wonder as they told us about their childhood and lives – so very different than our childhood lives, her stories reminded me of my own parents – their childhood in England, and their immigration to Canada and adapting to a new country. Her stories gave me pleasure; my reward – wonderful memories of my own parents’ stories now connect me to her stories.
During my visit, I noticed that my friend has sat up in bed, made herself comfortable and she has leaned in – she was vibrant and quite aware that she had a captive audience of one.
It was time to leave (an hour is optimum for a first visit) but I inquired first if I may return to hear and record more stories and she agreed wholeheartedly.
And now the confession: She admitted to me that she felt ill about our visit, and that she worried that she was not very interesting.
My intent from the beginning of this project, I assured her, is about the residents and their stories; it’s about fun; it’s about remembering the past with fondness and about seeing the connections – who we become and the moments that changed us. And most of all, it’s about recognizing that our lives matter – to our loved ones, our friends, visitors and volunteers, and to the staff.
I assured her that if the story-telling isn’t fun or if she doesn’t think it is worthwhile, then the project isn’t worth pursuing.
When I left her room, it occurred to me that in the beginning of this story-telling process, it’s vital to reassure the residents and perhaps to relate a couple of stories of another person’s life. That’s when the magic happens – all of us, young or old, like to hear stories. And when the stories are true – autobiographies in the making – we are all fascinated to capture a glimpse into the past and see inside one person’s life. At least, I know I am.
Because at the end of the day, we are all so unique, and not so unique. Once the stories flow, we can see how we are all connected – even though our stories are different. When she spoke of her family immigrating to Canada, the ship’s journey and final stop in the port of Halifax, I immediately thought of my parents’ arrival to Canada and wondered if they, like my friend, were scared, too.
We all think that our own individual lives are rather simple and mundane, and that in our own eyes, that we are not very special. But a funny thing happens when we share our stories with others: through the reflective lens of another, we begin to value the meaning and worthiness of our own stories. Through the lens, we see and understand the significance of our journey.
I believe that is the true gift that we receive when we share our stories.
I trust that my friend’s pleasure and joy in talking to me allowed her to see the significance of her life; I know that I received joy, inspiration and wisdom. And I cannot wait to visit her again.
But most of all, I am always so grateful that when we pay attention to people (and to their stories) we focus on their spirit – their true essence. And that is what connects us. Our spirits are all connected. We are all connected.
When we pay attention to another person, we share a part of us and in sharing we begin to care…our compassion, our kindness, and our love within grows. And that is the true gift!