My dear friend Michael is turning 70. It’s hard to believe that all this time has passed. I think we were both in our early thirties when we first met. Over 10 years ago his partner Gregory was first diagnosed with early onset of Alzheimer’s and a year ago last December, Gregory needed to be moved into a care facility. Michael visits him nearly every day.
At first Michael wanted to spend his birthday quietly but then decided to put on a carnival to celebrate his 70th year for the residents where Gregory now lives. He asked his friends to help man the booths (Ring Toss, Go Fish, Bowling, etc.). All the games would be set up so that each resident could easily accomplish the task. There would be popcorn and cotton candy, circus music and lots of balloons to make it as festive and stimulating as possible. And everyone would win a prize. The center had invited all the families of the residents as well. Yesterday was the celebration.
I have to admit that at first I wasn’t sure it was all going to work out and that the residents would truly enjoy themselves. But dream no small dreams. It was loud and high-spirited. The room was filled with lots of family members and the residents busy, interacting, and for the most part engaged. The staff at the center were also busy helping each resident through the maze of games and face-painting and food. JB and I were in charge of the photo booth where residents could get their pictures taken with a four foot bear Michael had purchased. We introduced ourselves to each resident as they came by and asked their names, told them what we were going to do, and introduced them to the bear. Some residents had intimate conversations with the bear, held its hand, felt its soft fur. Some, of course, were not aware of what was going on but a few seemed to be able to bring up a smile when asked. And then families began to request to have their pictures taken with their family member who lives there. Families gathered around their loved one and the bear to document the day. They asked for copies. One son whispered me a thanks for being so animated.
Having been to the center on other occasions visiting Gregory, I have become somewhat familiar with some of the residents. This was the first time, however, I met members of their families, the people from a time in their lives when they were vibrant, aware– the shakers and movers in their communal circles. Yesterday was a snapshot into the broader context of their lives and whom they must have been, into the apparent impact they have made on other relationships in their lives.
And perhaps that was the real gift of yesterday. All of Michael’s friends came to the Lieberman Center to bring some zest and energy into the lives of those who live there. We all came with preconceived notions of doing a good deed. Actually, I believe we all left loaded with gifts, and not the ones offered as door prizes. We left with some new understanding of how a life can be distilled to its essence, without ego and expectation. How joy can really feel so pure and simple. How connection, in whatever form it takes, can sometimes be enough.
When I saw Gregory, it took him a minute or two to look at me. He kept looking past me though he heard my voice. When his eyes finally settled on my face, his eyes widened and he said, “You are so pretty!” Trust me, I’m sure Gregory was responding to the energy coming from me, not to any external manifestation of beauty. I looked deeply into his eyes, rubbed his cheek, and thanked him for the compliment.
Near the end of the carnival, one resident, talking with me, looked at one of her daughters with an almost apologetic look on her face and said, “I am so dependent on her.”
“Well, once she was so dependent on you,” I responded.
“Yes,” she said, “that is true.” Smiling she added, “I guess that’s the joy of this game.”