He helped me figure out the code to open the doors at the Village at Smith Creek continuing care center one evening. I had just finished my visit with Veronica and hadn’t realized the code had changed until I tried the old code to find it didn’t work.
Glen was always helping out or sitting at the corner table next to Linda, his wife. She sat as she always did – in a wheelchair, her head tilted to the side, eyes closed – with beautiful smooth silver-grey hair. She has been at Smith Creek for the last 12 years so Glen knows all about the ins and outs of everything that happens there. He knows who has moved in, who takes coffee or tea, who has changed tables, who is fighting with her husband, who needs a chair for supper and who has a wheelchair instead. And he knows when someone has died.
He was the first person who spoke to me there the day Veronica died. I had been at her bedside all night as she was in palliative care. I was just coming back in to check on her and glanced ahead of me to see someone say something to Veronica’s mom. She quickened her laborious gait and wailed aloud in grief. I knew Veronica was gone before Glen told me.
“You missed her by 10 minutes” he said as he poured me a cup of hot tea from the carafe waiting there. I sat at his table (affectionately referred to as his ‘office’ by both of us). Veronica’s family was in saying goodbye and, as I was relatively new in her life, I gave them their space. I had started the habit of stopping by Glen’s office on my way in and out just to chat and see how he and Linda were doing. He’s quick to pick on me in a way that makes me feel welcome. And he offers me a cup of tea and a chair.
“You’re not going to stop coming now, are you?” Glen asked me. I hadn’t thought about it really. I had been coming by once a week for about 5 years and I never once thought about what I would do once Veronica was gone. “As long as your office is still open,” I found myself responding.
And I look forward to Tuesday Tea Time. He forgoes getting the coffee and tea for all the other residents on Tuesday afternoons. He says that way the people who are paid to do it remember how to do their jobs. Instead, I get a hug, a cup of tea, and a listening ear. He now, along with knowing all about everyone at Smith Creek, knows all about me. He asks me why I do what I do and tells me what he thinks I should do instead. I find out if anything other than status quo has happened in his week. And we always end up laughing – usually at me. He feeds Linda her supper not even realizing that his listening ear and generous heart are at the same time feeding my soul.
I was all alone in a McDonald’s playground area. I had dropped off Seth for morning preschool and had brought my book with me so I could enjoy a few moments to myself. We had just moved to Jamestown and I didn’t have any friends yet. Sitting quietly reading with sun shining down on my face and simple black coffee in hand with no demands sounded so peaceful to me.
I had only read one page and someone walked up to my table. He was about 3 decades older than me. I glanced up and smiled when he said, “Hi”, then went back to my book. I turned a page I hadn’t read. (If someone has a book and is actively reading, it sends a clear message – doesn’t it? I mean, isn’t it obvious that I wasn’t looking to chat?)
He didn’t get it. He sat at the table right next to mine and asked how I was. I short answered him with a smile and kept reading. He asked how my book was. I wanted to say, “Well, I could tell you how the book is if you would give me a chance to read it,” but instead I sighed inwardly and put my book down.
God’s voice in my head reminded me that the only way to meet people and make any difference in anyone’s life is to engage. So I did. We actually had a great conversation. He was a most interesting man. He told me about Jamestown and its brick streets. He told me about how it used to be thriving with new businesses back when he had moved there years ago. He sorrowed over what changes had come about.
Right before he left, he stood and said the strangest thing, “You have nice teeth.” He nodded and walked out the door before I had a chance to respond. Good thing too! Because how do you respond to that? It sounds like something you say when deciding whether or not to buy a horse. And my teeth are actually a little crooked -my parents didn’t believe in ‘changing the smile God gave me.’
But it was kind. And memorable. And a gift from a stranger. You just never know what someone might say if you put your book down for a minute. Nice teeth. I know, it’s a strange compliment- but I’ll take it!
A nonfat, decaf latte please. Is that a nondescript enough drink? Sometimes I just don’t want to stand out so much. Just blend in. Belong. Be like everyone else.
I remember the date because it was the day I started dating my husband, Jeff. December 27th we were in a big conference center in Chicago for a teen convention. Thousands of teens were there and we were part of a singing group that would perform that first night. Jeff told me the other girls in the group were in their room and pointed the way to the elevators so I could join them.
You’d think that’d be easy but there were escalators that led up to the bank of elevators. Those escalators were the only way up and I am always terrified that I’ll miss the first step on those things and fall on my face or that my toes will get eaten at the top. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but it looks like the gliding stairs are just for the purpose of moving items/people into the steel mouth of the upper floor. I have had my flip flop get caught in one of these at an airport in Kenya and ended up with a bloody toe so I know what I am talking about.
I made it to the top with no carnage (though I will admit to causing a small traffic jam as I waited to get the timing of the movement in my head and gathered courage to step on.) The worst was still to come. You see – there were 6 elevators and only 4 sets of buttons with up and down arrows. There were no labels so I didn’t know which elevator went to which floor or which buttons ran which elevator. But, how hard could it be? I was sure I would figure it out – I’m a fairly smart girl after all. So, I stood and watched. Everyone else seemed to know just what they were doing. They would confidently walk up and push a button and a door would open. But there didn’t seem to be a pattern as to which one. I’d see the numbers changing showing what floor the elevator was on but I couldn’t see any consistency as to which elevator went to which floor.
I finally had to go get Jeff to help me. Me – a 17 year old young woman and I needed help to get on an elevator. I’m sure it’s obvious to you that any button would run any elevator and it would take me to any floor. I bet there are lots of things that are obvious to you that I don’t know yet. But do you know the best kind of weather to catch flying ants in? Yeah – didn’t think so. Forget about being like everyone else. I’ll have a Mayan mocha with whipped cream.
If my sister Beth calls, I know it’s time to put the kettle on. I know we’ll talk long enough for the orange pekoe tea to steep and for me to drink at least one cup.
Beth is the type of older sister that paves the way for the younger siblings by doing everything perfectly. You can call it paving the way or setting us up for failure by instilling unrealistic expectations – it really can go either way. I loved it when I was handed the key to a lab by a professor who had never met me. He knew Beth and figured if I was her sister, I could be trusted with all the expensive equipment in the Science department. Not so much when I went for a sleepover at Grandma Brown’s house. “If you want to know how to pack a suitcase, you should watch your sister Beth.” The clothes were dirty! Whoever heard of folding dirty clothes? Well, besides, Beth I mean. . .
From Beth’s phone calls, you’d never guess that her life used to be orderly with everything in its place. She laughs now at the days when she thought she had some control over life. For about 5 years, her home was turned upside down by her daughter ’s OCD. Linnea got extremely ill as her OCD turned into an eating disorder. The tension, self doubt, feelings of inadequacy and questioning were all things I wasn’t used to hearing in Beth’s voice. Did she get it from me? Did I parent well enough? Was I too strict? Not strict enough? Is it something I said? Something I didn’t say? Beth would often start the conversation by saying, “Do you want to hear something funny?” and then she’d tell me the story of her day that would have me in tears and it wasn’t funny at all. I guess it was the ‘if you don’t laugh you’ll cry’ thing.
And she still doesn’t think she has life under her control. But she just does the day . . . just that day. She tells me that just because today has been a hard one, it doesn’t mean tomorrow will be. You have to do the next thing and let people change and have hope. She finds hope everywhere. She’s good at noticing little gifts from God in the middle of crazy days. She calls and tells me about those too – the compliment from a stranger in a grocery store, the scholarship working out, the broken car starting, the conversation with a friend that got her laughing. And by the time my tea is cold, I’m usually laughing too. Her laughter is contagious – the laughter of that crazy, wonderful, hopeful sister of mine.
Check out: ThisCollegeGirlVlogs to hear directly from Linnea – the neice I wrote about. Amazing young lady!!
I set down my travel mug filled with Bengal Spice Tea on her side table and moved a small chair over to the edge of Veronica’s bed. Her new bed adjusted to help her sit up as it was now too hard to move her to the chair. The days of using a walker or wheelchair to enjoy the outdoor gardens are long past. We used to talk together but those days are nearly gone as well. She is having a hard time moving her finger along the letter chart to spell out words so we mostly watch TV together.
We watch cooking shows. I can’t conceive of why. Veronica hasn’t been able to eat for a while. The last soft loaf of bread I brought in for her was given away because her swallowing had become more difficult. She depends completely on the stomach tube now. But we’d still watch the cooking shows. I’d laugh and tell her she must think I needed help cooking. Her eyes would laugh with me.
You can tell a lot from someone’s eyes. Her room phone would ring and her eyes would dart toward the phone asking me to pick it up. I’d answer it and then hold it up to her ear so she could hear her mom talk to her. Her eyes would flicker in response to her mom’s words. They’d tear up and, even though I couldn’t understand the language being spoken on the phone, I knew her mom was saying how much she loved her. Calling her precious.
She could tell me to change the channel with her eyes too. I’d go for trial and error until her eyes said it was the correct channel. Sometimes she just gave up because I couldn’t figure it out. If Keith Urban was on, it was always the right channel. She loved his songs. She and her husband had recorded themselves singing his songs back when she was well and they were together. She didn’t hold the fact that he couldn’t handle her illness against him. She told me he did his best. Magda, her sister would stop by too. She’d talk enough for all of us. I would rarely find a pause long enough to comment. Her English was broken but her stories of the old country were fascinating and I’d sip my tea and listen. I could tell Veronica sometimes didn’t agree with the way her sister was telling a story – but she couldn’t verbally correct her. She’d just comment with her eyes.
I miss those tea times. Her mom welcomed me at her daughter’s funeral. I don’t see her, Todd or Magda any more but that’s OK. I learned so much about grace in that chair beside Veronica’s bed when her eyes could still speak.
“When the priest withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the LORD and the priest could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LROD filled his temple.” 1 Kings 8:10
Today, I’m having a cup of sweet chai as that’s what I used to drink with Hope when we were kids together. Hope, Laura (my twin), and I would call ourselves Dare Devils 1, 2, and 3. We’d challenge each other to do new things. We’d try to fly off the chicken coop roof with pillow cases for parachutes. We’d plan sleep outs in car pits, tree houses, or on the shelf in the wood shop. We’d powder the cement hallway floors and slide with our stocking feet or haul cardboard out to the hill and slide down the dry grass as fast as we could go.
One of our favorite adventures was the swing that Dad put up in the huge avocado tree. That tree was so tall that even Dad couldn’t reach the first branch from the ground. We would find holes in the bark for footholds and grab onto vines that grew around the tree like a gnarly sweater. We’d climb up to the ledge that was wide enough to fit a good 6 people and wait there for a friend to pass the swing up to us. Then we’d jump on and sail out of that tree, turning the swing on the way back so the empty rope would be available for the next person to jump and join us. I still remember the joyful fear of leaping off that ledge, the roughness of the rope as I caught it, the thrill of the upswing on the other side. I remember the look of determination on Hope’s face as she leapt from the tree to join me on the swing. You get to know someone when you jump out of trees with them.
On the day I met Hope’s two siblings, I thought Amy was the oldest because Andrew was quite a bit shorter and didn’t talk as clearly. Hope told me that Andrew just seemed younger because he had Down Syndrome but that he was the most amazing brotherever . She said this last part a bit fiercely with her hand on her hip as if daring me to challenge her. I knew better – this was Hope after all. It’s funny how a moment that I believed insignificant at the time would still be so clear in my mind. I can feel the sun reflecting off the tennis court we were standing on. I can see the breeze blowing Amy’s straight, fine, brown hair. I can picture Andrew’s almond eyes and freckles.
Now I’m the one with the metaphorical hand on my hip. I find myself daring anyone to doubt that Seth, our youngest who has Down Syndrome, is any less than amazing. You should meet us for coffee some morning and you’ll find that it’s true. Not that we weren’t thrown for a loop at Seth’s arrival – but that story will take more than this cup of chai to tell. For now, I’ll just take one more sip then take the leap and swing out on a new adventure with Hope.
We all know that’s not what I mean. We almost never meet for the coffee. Sometimes we don’t even drink coffee at these coffee meetings because it’s the New Year and we are on some cleanse or something. But I have totally fallen in love with coffee times.
If you draw the continent of Africa and put a dot smack dab in the middle, you won’t be far from where I grew up. We went back to visit because I wanted my husband, Jeff, to feel the spongy grass under his feet at the airstrip and bounce over what passes as a dirt road. I wanted to climb over barb wire fences and walk through the cow pastures to market with him. But I never expected that there, in the middle of Africa, we’d discover the value of meeting for coffee.
There, you see, people just stop by. Abruhamu’s face was deeply lined when I was a child but when he stopped by for coffee he looked exactly the same as he always had even though I now had children of my own. He shook his finger at me telling me I was a daughter of Africa but I didn’t come back enough and I didn’t know the language well enough and I didn’t eat enough.
I didn’t know the language well but I did know enough to hear the welcome in that reprimanding finger and those half accusing words. He was yelling at me, but not for what I was doing – for the fact that I hadn’t done it sooner. So I sipped my tea in the smoky kitchen and watched him shuffle to a wooden chair. When he was settled, I brought over his cup and he put in so much sugar I knew it’d never dissolve. He sighed as he took a sweet sip then settled in to tell me his stories – stories of my dad as a kid, stories of his kids and their kids, stories no one else could tell in quite the same way.
When Jeff and I got back to New York, memories of connectedness over coffee fresh in our minds, we went out and bought 2 beautiful mugs. We planned on starting our own tradition of coffee times together. We still have our coffee times but now it looks a little different. Now our 4 teenagers join us in the early morning. Over coffee, we usually discover we have forgotten some school event, or are short one vehicle to get someone to work. Now we mock each other, argue, and laugh together- but we make it happen. Because we realize it’s not about the coffee –it’s about the meeting.