Sunday, July 19, 2009

Finding my way back..

My grandmother always used to say, "It is the fool who fails to return to the place of his last happiness."
October Road

People ask me all the time if I’m really a therapist. They knew me as a comedian or a bartender, or a beer-guzzling maniac, and at various times (like yesterday) I’ve been all of those things. One goal in psychology is called integration, which describes what happens when you kind of merge all of the different parts of yourself into a unified whole. I’m not sure I’m totally there yet, but a couple of years ago while working in a hospital I figured something out about all of this.

At the time I was an Activity director at an Alzheimer's unit. My job in a nutshell, was to entertain people who were suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. My mission was to keep them occupied as they were slowly dying of a disease that was ravaging their brains. It sounds like a morbid and awful job. It wasn’t.

People say the sex drive is the last thing to go. They are close, it’s the second to last. It was my experience that silliness was the very last thing to go. Although an awful degeneration occurs in Alzheimer’s disease, one of the oddly positive things that can happen is that people suffering from this disease begin to act like children again. I saw people who laughed until the day they died. I saw people who were nearly catatonic giggle hysterically when someone tickled their hand. I saw women laugh hysterically when they couldn’t even remember where they were at, over some simple knock-knock joke or slightly off-color comment about kissing one of the “boys’ (who were 90 year-old men in wheelchairs). In any case this taught me a lot about how deadly serious humor can really be. Kind of a paradox to be sure, but I have seen first hand how powerful it can be in helping cope with even the most tragic of situations.

This became apparent to me while I was working at this hospital and filling in for a week on the skilled nursing floor, which was where they put people of all ages who usually had some serious physical health problems.

While there I met a woman named Karen who was in her 40’s and totally confined to a wheelchair due to ALS. Although she had days when she could barely move, on days she was feeling better I would wheel her over to the piano and she would play the most wonderful old songs from the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. I learned some classic tunes from her in those days, like In the good old summertime, and Swanee by Al Jolson.

As time passed I returned to work on my own floor, but made a point of coming down to see Karen whenever I got a chance. She seemed generally glad to see me when I showed up, and the feeling was certainly mutual. As a life-long music lover, I had soon developed an amazing repertoire of show tunes, sing-alongs, and other older classics from hanging out with Karen, and this was actually quite helpful in entertaining my wayward troops upstairs.

Eventually Karen’s disease progressed however, and she was unable to even get out of bed, let alone play the piano. She was dying, and she specifically asked me if I would come by and see her whenever I could, as she had no one else to keep her company.

And so I did. I made a little time every day to pop in on her during lunch, or after work, or whenever else I got a chance, but it was clear she was not doing well. It was incredibly sad to see this woman who was only in her 40’s dying alone in a hospital, but I always reminded myself that there but for the grace of God go all of us. Eventually she did pass away, and I held her hand and sat with her almost to the end. A couple of days later one of the nurses pulled me aside and told me she had left a letter for me that she had helped her transcribe onto paper. It read;

Dear Joe,

I knew you for only a short while, so it may seem strange to be getting a love letter from an old woman with a crippling disease. I wanted to let you know that our time playing the piano together and listening to music were some of the best times of my life. As odd as that may sound, I have been a loner for most of my life. I have been sick for most of my days, and didn’t get to do a lot of what the other kids got to do growing up. I took solace in my music. I learned to play all the old songs because I used to sit around and dream about living in a simpler place where the “livin was easy.”

Meeting you and being around YOUR lighthearted spirit, improbably took me to this simpler place. I can’t thank you enough for seeing me through these last days of my life. I have no idea why the good lord is taking me so young. It’s not for me to know. What I do know however is that you made me laugh until the day that I died.. And that was truly an incredible gift. Goodbye my friend..

Love Karen..

I was so stunned when I read this I could barely breathe. The way I saw it I was popping in on someone for a few minutes a day to cheer her up, but clearly what these few minutes meant to her was something completely different.

The reason I post this story is because prior to starting this job I had decided it was time to “grow up” and become a little more serious in my life as I focused on my goals and aspirations. What a stupid idea this was. I had met several authority figures in my life who had given me this advice, and ultimately I think it said a lot more about them than it did about me. In silliness is the preservation of life. I’ve seen it breathe spirit into all kinds of people, from dying Alzheimer’s patients, to abused children, to my dear friend Karen, who accepted her fate in life and smiled and laughed until her dying breath.

This is why I included the quote that I did at the beginning of this vignette. Somehow people had convinced me to be more “serious’ in life, and it was truly the worst advice I had ever received. It took seeing people die to make me realize that the best gift I had to give was this silliness, and I will NEVER again make the mistake of relinquishing this very large part of myself. I discovered this lesson in the most unlikely of places, but it is a lesson that will endure with me forever.


  1. Joe - Both your Grandmother and you make a great deal of sense. Are you familiar with oh I forgot his name but he is a famous person who was very ill with an undiagnosed ailment. A nurse came in one day in his hospital room and picked up his foot to give him a rub. He lashed out at her insisting she instantly stop what she was doing. Unintimidated she continued rubbing his foot indicating that is what he needed. He was so flabbergasted by her unexpected reaction that he began laughing. He attitutes his eventual return to health by his significant shift in attitude.

    P.S. If you have not done so - you might seriously consider writing as a second profession. You tell a mean and compelling story.

  2. I just saw this comment for the first time. Thank you so much for your kind words. I really appreciate the encouragement.