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Hurry Up and Cut the Cake while I Still Have Time to Eat It


by Charles Tindell

During the Middle Ages it has been said, though never substantiated by written documents, that one of the questions that those in certain theological circles wrestled with was “How many angels could dance on the head of a pin?” If there was ever such a query, it probably was put forth, tongue-in-cheek, by common folks to the scholastic religious community who they felt were spending too much time pondering questions that had no bearing on everyday life. If Gunda, a resident who has a room on the second floor of the Chronic Care Center, had been around at that time, she would have answered the question (whether it had been asked tongue-in-cheek, or otherwise) quite bluntly: Who cares?
Gunda and her peers at the nursing home are not interested in dealing with ethereal inquiries such as dancing angels, nor do they have the time. They ponder more concrete, immediate concerns: How soon do I get to lie down? How much longer is it until supper? When can I have another pain pill? Will we have raisin toast tomorrow? When are they going to answer my call light? Have they fixed my dentures yet? These questions reflect the down-to-earth concerns of residents and are always asked with an awareness of how quickly time is passing. Residents, like Gunda, realize they have reached a point in life where their remaining days can no longer with certainty be measured in years or even months. One resident, for example, who was celebrating his ninety-first birthday, shared his perspective of time with those gathered for the occasion. “I’ve come to the point in life where my future is now behind me,” he said, and then added with a laugh, “Let’s hurry up, and cut the cake while I still have time to eat it.”

As the clock ticks away, many residents will talk about not having enough time in the day to do all the things they want to do. Their days are filled with such things as crocheting mittens for their great-grandchildren, or answering all the mail they receive from family and friends, or sharing a cup of coffee with the newly acquired friends they have made since arriving at the nursing home. To view time from the perspective of residents, as well as experience their sense of urgency about time remaining, you only need to place yourself in the daily routine of a resident for a week or two. If you did, you would discover your days filled with such time-consuming things as going to physical and occupational therapy, having doctor and dental appointments, conferring with staff about baths and changes in medication. Besides these “necessities” of nursing home life, residents seek to find time to read, attend activities that are of interest to them, participate in outings, (going out to eat, for example, is always a treat but can take an entire afternoon), answer correspondence, entertain visitors, volunteer, serve on resident committees, and take naps (as people half their age, upon finding their days so busy, would need to do as well). One cannot assume that the residents have little to do but watch the hands of the clock while they rock in their rocking chairs. If some residents do watch a clock, it may mean that they are simply making sure they will be on time for whatever activity or appointment they have next on their daily agenda.

People who live in nursing homes have learned to literally take life one day at a time. If they do glance at the clock, it is usually because they want to make sure that old Father Time is giving them sixty minutes to every hour. Consider Edwin, for example. He had just returned from spending eleven days at the hospital. Two years shy of being ninety, he had been in for a rather serious viral infection. For a while, it looked as though he wasn’t going to make it. The doctors were not optimistic and even told the family one afternoon that they should plan to spend the night. Edwin, however, to everyone’s surprise, did recover. Shortly after he returned from the hospital, I went to visit him in his room in the Chronic Care Center. He was propped up in bed doing a crossword puzzle. As he looked to see who was coming in, his glasses slid to the tip of his nose and nearly fell off. Edwin grinned as he pushed them back up.

“Hello,” I said, “how’re you doing?” I took note how tired he looked. His hospital stay had aged him.
“Got a tune-up at the hospital,” he replied more cheerfully than I had expected. After marking the page of his crossword puzzle book, Edwin set it on the nightstand, muttering to it, “I’ll get to you later.” He pushed up his glasses, which had slipped again, and then looked me straight in the eye as he announced gleefully, “I’m good for another thirty days!”

Some might hear Edwin’s remark as no more than a humorous response, but given his recent experience in the hospital, we both understood that underlying his words was the awareness of time rushing by and how fragile life can be. What he did not say, but was evident by the determined look in his eyes, was that of those thirty days, he was going to make every day count. Knowing Edwin, at the end of that period, he would then say to Father Time, Let’s go for another thirty!

Another example that illustrates that time is viewed from a different perspective by a nursing home resident comes from my initial encounter with Irma. Before fully assuming my position as chaplain at the Home, it was necessary to honor some commitments in the parish I was still serving. My plan was to work for a week in my new position to get oriented, and then go back to my church to finish up the loose ends. On the last day of that first week on the job, during the noon meal for the residents, I went around to each of the tables to explain my work situation. Irma was sitting at one of the tables, and after she heard me say I would be back in two weeks, she said matter-of-factly, but with a twinkle in her eyes, “I hope I’m still around.” It was only later that afternoon that I realized Irma was serious. She hoped to see me in two weeks, but at age eighty-four, Irma could not make any promises. As I was to learn from Irma and other residents, their perspective of time is far different from those of the younger generation.

As stated earlier, residents have neither the time nor the inclination to wrestle with such a question as, how many angels could dance on the head of a pin? There is, though, a question that would make a worthy opponent for those living within any period of history. The question was asked by Gunda, who has been a resident at the Home for nearly twelve years. Other than using a walker and, as Gunda says, doctoring with her eyes because of cataracts, she was doing reasonably well for being in her late eighties. That was until she suffered a stroke. For five months, Gunda was involved with physical therapy twice a week, occupational therapy once a week, and speech therapy three times a week. During this time, she regained a good share of her speech, but did not regain the use of her right arm, nor her ability to walk without falling. The physical therapy Gunda had received helped but only to a limited extent. Any further walking she would do would now have to be done with the assistance of staff. At her last care conference, she was informed that she had probably regained as much use of her right arm as she could expect. As far as walking again without assistance, the therapists said they would continue to work with her; but, for now, she would need to use a wheelchair until there were further signs of improvement. Faced with her circumstances, Gunda’s question was: “If God can perform miracles, why doesn’t He perform one on me?”

I don’t know about you, but I think I’d rather deal with the question concerning the dancing angels on the head of the pin.

Excerpted from The Enduring Human Spirit by Charles Tindell. Copyright © 2003 by Idyll Arbor, Inc. Excerpted by arrangement Idyll Arbor, Inc. All rights reserved. $16. Available in local bookstores or call 888-97BOOKS or click here.

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