I moved my parents, together, into the Alzheimer wing of a nice assisted living facility the first week of December 2011. Daddy’s mind is still together enough to hold a conversation, but my Mom’s ability to converse is all but gone. It was the right thing to do, but as anyone who has been through this knows, it is a very, very difficult thing to do.
On a cold night three days before the end of the year, I found myself alone in their turn-of-the-20th-century house in a small town about an hour from Atlanta. It was my first visit back since the move, and I was overwhelmed by so much; the sense of emptiness that filled the house; the volume of possessions I was tasked with sorting through; the spaghetti bowl of affairs left to untangle.
Within 30 seconds of turning the heat on to battle against the 48-degree temperature inside the house, I smelled gas. I turned the temperature down as low as it would go to make the system cut back off and called 911. Within 5 minutes I was told that the local gas company only came out to turn pilot lights back on if they had turned the gas service off to begin with.
I tried to turn the system totally off, but there were no switches on the thermostat. I could turn the thermostat down to 42, but when the house cooled off only 6 more degrees, the system was going to turn on and stay on no matter what I did.
I called 911 again and told the operator (in what I remember as civil tones) that, as I saw it, the gas company folks had two choices: They could either come out then, or they could come out later after the house exploded.
Within 10 minutes (it was now about 10:45 PM), there was a knock at the back door. Greg from the gas company crawled up under the house, checked the gas lines, and declared them functional. The pilot light was still lit. His theory was that fumes had built up in the two weeks the system was not used, and that that’s what I had smelled.
All of this was stressful and fairly shocking, but what I will always remember the most was what Greg told me. “When I heard this was Mr. Mathis’ house, I decided it didn’t matter; I’d do whatever it took,” he said. “I’d do anything for Mr. Mathis.”
I did not grow up in this town. My parents moved there in 1986, years after I graduated high school and even a few years after I married. My father retired there and enjoyed 25 years of relishing retired life with my Mom. A huge part of his enjoyment, for many Decembers, was playing Santa to pretty much any group that needed him. For a few of those years, my mother donned pince-nez glasses and her own red dress and played Mrs. to his Santa. I knew all that. But it was not until that cold, lonely December night, I began learning what that really meant.
I survived that night, and the next day I called the local heating and air company. Gary came out to check the heating system, and after five minutes informed me that he was going to have to permanently shut it down. “The heat exchange is melted through in three places,” he said. “Great,” I thought. Another surprise…of the unpleasant kind.
But then he said, “You know, I remember sitting on your father’s lap when I was a kid.” A kid? This grown man standing in front of me? “I’d do anything for Mr. Mathis. He’s the coolest guy. I think so much of him.” His words were eerily similar to Greg’s.
A few days later it was the local auto mechanic’s turn. Mom and Dad’s checkbook showed that he had worked on their cars for at least the last 10 years. So we tasked him with telling us what it would take to get their 10-year-old Mazda sedan in dependable enough driving condition to put our 16-year-old in it if we bought it.
“We have so many pictures of my kids on your father’s lap,” he said with a smile. “My son insisted on going by the bank and sitting on Santa’s lap even after he was really too old.” And, for a third time, I heard, “I think so much of your Dad. I’d do anything for him.”
When we picked up the car, his wife came along to meet us. I unsuccessfully fought déjà vu as I heard her say, “Your parents were always so great. We never had a Mrs. Santa before!”
Everywhere I went in around town, I was told how much everyone thought of my Dad. The first time I heard it, I thought, “Small-towners. Everyone’s a big fish in a small pond.” The second time I heard it, I thought, “Wow, he sure saw a lot of kids over 25 years.” By the third time, I could no longer avoid thinking more deeply about it. They saw my parents as such a treasure. I mean, so did I…but most of these people only saw Daddy occasionally. It made me start noticing the people I only saw occasionally, and to begin wondering: Do I treasure others as much as these people treasure my folks?
Greg had crawled under a house in the middle of a freezing, dark night. The mechanic had spent 30 minutes in my parent’s backyard tracking down a broken, stuck belt that made it impossible for me to drive the car to his shop and drove it there himself. And Gary worked with me on the replacement of that melted heating unit.
They chose to put their heart and their actions behind their words and they chose to value my parents. All of a sudden the “short-timers” in my life began to take on much more significance in my mind and heart. Where had these folks found that weight and value?
So many people come in and out of our lives as we go about our day-to-day business. With so many short interactions with so many people, it’s easy to blow off each as insignificant. But if the people I'd encountered had done that, I doubt I would’ve had help with a dangerous situation on a cold winter night. The next day, I would have paid a tow truck to tow a car 2 miles. And who knows how much a new heating system would’ve cost.
Being treasured by those “short-timers” in my parents’ lives made me look twice at the person who waits on me at Starbucks; the bank teller I had to wait 5 minutes in line to get to that then has to send me to a customer service person; the guy who dries my car off at the car wash but won’t look me in the eye. All of a sudden it became important to me that they remember me in a good way, whether they remembered me for long or not.
I wasn’t just banking positive influence for days ahead when I might need a favor from them. Being held as precious by so many who had never met made it clear to me that, no matter how anonymous my life’s “short-timers” may seem, they are precious souls with entire lives that I have no clue about. They are more than a face and a comment or two; they have challenges and strengths and weaknesses just as I do. Just because it’s easy to dismiss them does not mean that I should.
Much more often now than before, I choose to respond in a way that lets these souls know that they have worth just because they are who they are. The more value I give them in my heart, the more difficult it is to toss them aside.
And now that I’m not the only one filling up my life, I’ve found it feels fuller and more vibrant. I find smiles and “thank yous” coming my way; I see faces relax when someone is treated with kindness. Bringing joy to others helps bring peace and fulfillment to my day. When I’m enjoying everyone’s smiles and joy, instead of just my own, there is so much more to enjoy!
Off to find someone to smile at…