5 June

Joan’s Husband: “He Said He Was All Right. But He Wasn’t…”

by Jon Katz
Joan’s Husband

I love talking to Joan and listening to her, we are learning how to communicate with one another. We have talked long enough and often enough that I can sort out memory and feeling clearly and reliably. In most conversations, if they go bac a bit in time, Joan will re-create the death of her husband.

It is always the same image. He was sick, claimed to be well, but was not. That is as far as she can do. In most conversations, Joan sees her stay at the Mansion as temporary. She believes she is going home one  day, and packs up all of her things most nights.

Today, she talked about her husband’s death. It seemed the were outside, near water. He fell down.

“He told me that he was all right,” she said. “But he was not all right.” And she shows a motion of dropping to the ground and she shakes her head and is silent for a bit, and sad. I think she has the idea that she might have done more in some way, but she drops it there and goes no farther, and I would not be comfortable pushing her.

She has told me a number of times that her daughter died, but never that she was murdered by a boy friend. One day, that story may come out. I won’t push to hear that either. I’ve seen a newspaper story about it.

Joan tells me what she wants me to know, the rest is not my business. It is interesting to me, though, how much memory can come up if you listen for it, and how well I understand her if I listen long enough. I wonder if she will ever know my name. I doubt it.

Yet there is genuine love and connection there. And sometimes, better communication than with people of full memory. Joan is sweet and loving and generous.

I am grateful for my work in the Mansion, it teaches me so much about how to love and how to feel. You can write Joan c/o the Mansion, 11 S. Union Avenue, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. Please do not expect a reply.

5 June

The Mansion: Sylvie And Dan: The Last Bingo Game

by Jon Katz
Her Last Bingo Game

I feel close to Sylvie, a Mansion resident of some years. We talk often and she loves to receive and answer the letters  you send, she told me today that because of my blog, “I have many new friends.” I supply her a steady stream of envelopes and notecards and stamps.

Your letters are precious to her.

Sylvie is  serious and thoughtful, and deeply religious, she is a member of the Jehovah Witnesses.

She spends her days answering letters and poring over religious articles and books. She is one of my favorite portrait subjects. She was the daughter of diplomats and traveled all over Europe after World War II. She was first hospitalized there for mental issues.

Sylvie always greets me warmly and courteously, she always thanks me for every single thing I bring her.

She had two breakdowns and spent more than a decade in a special facility in Massachusetts. She is open and  honest with me, she has told me of the loss of a beloved dog in the Austrian mountains, she remembers hearing his cries echoing in the night.

Sylvie is very much the individual, she wears caps all year and walks in flowing dresses and big furry slippers. She had a lot of trouble getting the right clothes to wear in bed, she sometimes is cold, sometimes hot. I think we’ve figure it out. We went through a lot of slippers.

She fell in love twice in her life, she said, the last was Dan, someone she met in the Massachusetts facility where she lived for a long time. He died there while they were much in love.

Every Friday, Maria and I call the Bingo game (thanks for the great prizes) and I invite Sylvie to come. She always declines. Today, she came up to me and apologized for not playing. Sometimes she comes into the dining room where the games are played to sit with me.

“Why don’t you play?,” I asked.

“Because I used to play Bingo with Dan,” she said, “it was something he loved. And I can’t bear to play it anymore.”

Then she thought  about it, and added: “in his honor.”

I thought of hugging Sylvie, but I can’t remember her ever hugging me, or me hugging her. We are good friends, I think, but she is reserved, and so am I, and I don’t thing she needs or wants a hug.

I go by Red. If the resident doesn’t  touch or hug him, I don’t touch or hug them. That’s a good general rule to follow. Most of the residents love to be touched and need to be touched. Joannie hugs me intensely and with great feeling when I say goodbye. Almost everyone touches Red.

And in any case, I never hug anyone without asking. Now, after working so closely with them, there is a lot of hugging. Some cry when I leave after visiting with Red. They all gather to say goodbye.  Beyond the me.too movement, it’s a good rule to follow in the world for me: I ask before I touch anyone. Some people just don’t like it. I am one of them, except in the Mansion, where I am a hugging fool.

Sometimes I want to cry too, there is a lot of love flowing between me and them, and Maria and them. And I know I may not see them again, it happens quite often. A week is a very long time at the Mansion. No one will tell me if anyone leaves, I have to notice it. Sometimes I miss it.

I told Sylvie I understand completely why she doesn’t play bingo, but if she ever decides to, she would be most welcome.

“Thank you, Jon,” she said.

Sylvie loves your letters and we are working on helping her with addresses and stamps – many of her letters get returned, and she classifies those as “prayers.” I gave her a bagful of pens today, she loses a lot of pens and goes through a lot of notecards. Your letters are her link to the outside world, her mind is active and very sharp, so is her memory.

If you wish to write her,  you can send her letters care of Sylvie/ The Mansion, 11 S. Union Street, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816.

She works hard to return them. Stamped and self-addressed envelopes do help.

5 June

The Mansion: A Rabbit For Jean

by Jon Katz
A Rabbit For Jean

A member of the Army Of Good – I don’t have permission to use her name – sent me a box of beautiful and very soft and furry stuffed animals. I was going to use them as Bingo prizes at our Friday night games, but I remember that the staff has been telling me that Jean, who has just returned from some time in a nursing facility, so loved the cat I gave her earlier each year, she slept with it and held it for hours.

It is hard to convey the intensity of the resident’s love of stuffed animals, especially one like this rabbit, who is especially soft and furry. The elderly, when they come to assisted care, often give up everything that they know and love in the world – people family, friends, neighbors, pets.

Jean adores Red and hold him for as long as she can. She has several stuffed animals she holds in bed while she sleeps, and another big stuffed dog in a dog bed on the floor. Just as Diane loves her baby Sue, Jean is drawn to her animals, and if she can’t be with real animals, she will love the ones she has.

She took to this rabbit so quickly, she could hardly believe it when I told her it was hers. She almost seemed to be praying with the rabbit, it felt so good to her. The staff was right, as usual. This was what Jean really needs.

If you wish to write to Jean, you can send letters and photos – I believe she would love animal photos  –  to Jean, The Mansion, 11 S. Union Avenue, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. Iearned tonight that the Mansion needs mulch for their garden. I’ll take care of that.

Thanks to the angel who sent the stuffed animals, the rest will go among the Bingo Prizes, now getting quite fabulous.

5 June

Woman Power: Almost Done

by Jon Katz
Women Power: Almost Done

Bedlam Farm is powered by strong women – Maria, Lulu and Fanny, Zelda and Biddy and Rosemary the sheep, Flo and Minnie, and Fate the border collie who loves sheep. We don’t forget Pearl, Rose,  Frieda and Lenore.

Strong women are welcome her and thrive here. Red and I are the old farts of the farm, we sit around and stay out of the sun and shake off flies and read and type and hang out lie on our backs sometimes in repose.

Around us, strong women get it done.

Nicole came over again today to stack wood. She is a fierce and steady worker, she is almost finished with two cords of wood in two days, about three hours total. She may be the best wood stacker we have ever had, and we have had some good ones.

Nicole grew up on a farm, and loves hard work, she has at least three jobs, including one at the Cambridge Valley Vet, where Maria and I met her. She also helps care for the animals when we are away or busy. She is a terrific worker and a good friend, sometimes she comes with her son Keene, who works as hard as she does.

When I went out to check on her, she said she was fine. “Sorry,” she said, “I get red in the face when I stack wood.” Actually, she doesn’t. I get red in the face from watching her.

The young people around her have no aversion to work, and they know how to work hard. Nicole is a single mother and is saving up for a trip to the New Hampshire beach in July. She has already earned the hotel costs, about $600  and is now working to get enough money for food, gas, groceries, rides and games.

She figures she needs another $500. Keene, she says, eats like a dinosaur. She has jobs lined up weeks in advance.

Nicole takes a lot of pride in work and in her work. And who better to care for animals than a vet tech who loves animals. Nicole cared for Gus when he was sick, and that was a great relief for us.

She plans to finish the wood tomorrow. As soon as she does, I’ll order two more cords, and we will be nearly ready for the winter. I have no doubt Nicole and Keene will make it to New Hampshire for their vacation.

5 June

How Wayne Stole My Hat. “A Little Bit Of Joy In Life.”

by Jon Katz
How Wayne Stole My Hat

Nothing makes Wayne happier than playing tricks on me. When I came into the Mansion, I put my hat down near the office, and an hour later, as I was leaving, I couldn’t find it. “Where is my hat?,” I asked the staff, and Maria, who had come along with me.  Maria just smiled in an odd way and said she didn’t know.

I knew something was up. Maria is always aware of everything.

I looked around and saw it  on top of Wayne’s head, where he had put it, and the last place I was looking for it. Wayne was just beside himself. He grinned and laughed out loud.

He also likes to  hide the bingo wheel when I come for bingo Saturday night, he is good at it.

Wayne has a wicked sense of humor, and he is a rascal who never stops smiling in the midst of a difficult life.

I will tell you something on a serious but related note. The other day, I saw a documentary film about Pope Francis called Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word, and I kept looking at the Pope’s frequent soft smile and I kept seeing Wayne’s face, his smile.

They were both so similar. And this touched me deeply, as I believe both are sweet men who never forget humor and brighten the lives of others, even in sad and difficult times. I don’t know what to make of this, except it was a powerful spiritual connection between too good men.

Their smiles are almost eerily similar, accompanied by the same twinkle in the eye. I got a tingle on my spine when I saw it in the movie, and then again, today on Wayne’s face.

“God is Young,” said the Pope. “If one doesn’t have a sense of humor, it’s very difficult to be happy.” For almost forty years, said the Pope in the film, he has begun his day reciting the “Prayer For Good Humor,” written by St. Thomas More in the 1400’s. It begins this way:

Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest.

Grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humor to maintain it.

and ends this way:

Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke to discover in life a bit of joy,

and to be able to share it with others.”

Wayne never forgets to joke or smile, or to share  his bit of joy. Tomorrow, I’m taking him a printout of this poem, and I’ll read it to him.

I know he will grasp it. i’m also bringing him another gift certificate to the Battenkill  Bookstore. He has already read all of the books I got him two weeks ago.

Wayne has few reasons in his life to laugh or joke, but he never fails to smile. If you wish, you can write Wayne c/o The Mansion, 11 S. Union Avenue, Cambridge, N.J., 12816. It is very difficult for Wayne to write back, as he does not have the use of his fingers in one hand. He does read the letters he receives and loves getting them.

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