I have a regular gig one Sunday a month, playing piano for a worship service at a local assisted living facility. Most residents come in wheelchairs, use walkers, or ride on electric scooters. Many of them fall asleep during the service. I play several hymn arrangements and lead in singing songs; then an elder or pastor from my church reads and teaches from God’s Word. I try to speak with each resident afterwards, but conversation can be difficult since some of them struggle with hearing or cognitive issues.
One couple regularly invites visitors to their room after the program. At least the lady does; her husband rarely speaks. The sweet lady (who only lives in the facility to assist her incapacitated husband) lovingly attends to him and is quick to share with us snippets of their life together. In particular, she is eager to share a recording of her husband from days long past, his tenor voice singing a song she wrote.
For some reason, I resist. The invitation is reminiscent of something my mother would have done, wanting to share a special memory with anyone willing to listen. But memories of my mother make me miss her. Plus, I really don’t want to go to their room. Maybe it will feel too much like my dad’s room in the dementia facility where he lived his last years. I’d rather remember my father as the university professor, sharing his knowledge and insight with a classroom of students. And, of course, I fear that since his mind slipped away, I can’t be far behind.
On a recent visit, the lady caught me again. “Have you been to our room to hear the recording of my husband singing?”
I considered saying I had gone last month because she apparently didn’t remember, but couldn’t bring myself to lie. Instead, I gave an excuse.
“I’m sorry, but I have to be somewhere in a few minutes.” And I did. More than anything, I wanted to be home. I was exhausted after spending five hours on my feet that morning doing coffee set-up and greeting at church.
“It will only take a minute,” she said.
That’s doubtful, I thought.
She wouldn’t let it go. I walked past her a couple more times collecting songbooks and every time I was within earshot she repeated her request.
“I really wish you would come to our room. I can guarantee it’s a song you’ve never heard.” My pastor was already following the couple to the elevator.
“I’m sorry. Not today,” I said, with as kind a smile as possible, and then fled.
Guilt followed me to my car and sat in the passenger seat as I drove away, accusing me of failing to love well. What would it have cost me to go to their room and listen to a song? Five minutes? Ten?
I texted my pastor a short while later.
“No. I left five minutes ago.”
“How bad was it?”
“I’ve heard worse. They were sweet. Ran into someone I did not realize was there on my way out! Providential!”
He took the time to listen to the old couple and saw a sign it was God’s intention.
What did God intend for me?
I was being true to myself, setting boundaries for what I felt capable of handling that day. But did selfishness or love win? Did love for myself take precedence over love for others? Did I listen to God or did I figuratively put my fingers in my ears?
Death does not frighten me, but ever since my dad’s tenure in a senior facility, I fear being incapacitated and needing to live in one. I can continue playing piano for seniors a few times a month and briefly talk with them, but that’s all I can do. I can’t allow myself to go any further, to grow comfortable visiting their private rooms and being bound by walls intended to provide security. I don’t want one of those places to feel like home.
I’m doing my best to stay active and vibrant during the latter years of my life. I pray, though, to slow down enough to hear God’s voice and to simply follow His lead. Even if it means sitting in an old person’s room listening to their memories.
And so, I decided that on my next visit, I would go hear the song, certain they would ask me again. When the day arrived, however, the wife came alone, grieving the loss of her beloved husband.
People can slip away quickly. A great reminder for me to care for them while they’re still here.
Do everything in love. I Corinthians 16:14 NIV