Sunday, December 27, 2009

Surprised by Beauty

At the health care facility where I work, I'm daily confronted by sights, smells, and moans that are unspeakably sad. But surprisingly often, there are also scenes that bring tears to my eyes for their astonishing beauty. I want to stop in my tracks, circle my forefinger and thumb over my eye and frame the image in memory. I'll stand there wishing that I were a skilled and artistic photographer who could capture these moments that would inform and surprise the world. For who knew there could be as much beauty in a nursing home as in a museum, a cathedral, or a garden?

While observing these vignettes on the strength of the human spirit, I'll think of my friend Rodney Slate who actually is a skilled and artistic photographer, and wish he were there to document the images I'm seeing. His photographs tell strong and beautiful stories. Like the one above of his mother's hands.

If Rodney were there, I imagine he would capture the soft winter light falling on Mr. and Mrs. Hunt*. He'd probably focus on the familiar way the husband is holding his wife's hand. You'd see 52 years of loving still in Mr. Hunt's eyes. And you would sadly notice that emotion is missing from his wife's. In Mrs. Hunt's face, all that remains is a greater contentment in her husband's presence.

Another beautiful image could be captured of Corrine with her daughter. Corrine suffers from Alzheimer's Disease. One time I asked her if she'd like to go listen to some music and she replied, "On this planet?" I usually don't laugh at such lapses in cognition (or was it?) but that one had me chuckling. Corrine's daughter doesn't laugh though. She battles the foe of dementia for her mother with all the strength and determination of a heavy-weight prize fighter.

She constantly talks to her mother about family and friends, local and world events. To hear only the daughter's side of the conversation, you'd think Corrine was busy whipping up Christmas dinner for twenty back in her own kitchen.

I overheard one of these one-sided conversations a few days before Christmas. Corrine's daughter was showing her gifts that were going to be from Corrine. The daughter held up a herringbone monogrammed scarf and asked, "Do you think Aunt Martha would like this one? Oh, good. Let's wrap it up for her." I can't begin to describe all the love in that, but Rodney could capture it. You'd see the sweet yet steely desperation for normalcy in the daughter's eyes--the entertained but somewhat vacant look in the mother's. You'd see this woman courageously fighting to keep her mother with her one more day and you'd feel blessed to witness such determined love.

And then there's Ira. He's so frail and slow and bent over that you wonder how he even takes care of himself. Yet you can set your watch by this man. He comes to feed his non-responsive wife each meal as he has done every day for three years. Ira should be on magazine covers like a sports hero; paparazzi should follow him around to show the world how real men keep promises. Ira is a quiet soul; he doesn't converse much with staff or even look around. With head down, he walks straight to Rosemary. Three times a day. If Rodney were there, I'd ask him to record this image--Ira walking toward his wife.

How I wish Rodney had been there last Thursday when a bunch of rowdy kids from the YMCA sang Christmas Carols. Teenagers were in charge of them, and at first I thought how I would've managed things differently. But I would have been wrong. Their performance was lovely in all its spontaneous glory--like a field of wildflowers on a breezy day. There was one little girl whose straight red hair was cut in a pixie. She smiled a lot and added hand motions to some of the words--whenever the spirit moved her. What a little character. What a unique expression of God's goodness.

But the scene I most wanted Rodney to capture was when the kids couldn't think of any more songs and a leader said, "Okay, tell everyone bye." The crowd of 25 kids charged out into the wheelchairs and started hugging people. The old faces beamed and grew younger behind the embraces of this wild and happy choir. I even saw overjoyed tears wetting the cheeks of the ever-silent Molly after nuzzles from the feisty strangers.

This crazy little thing we call "love" is the most powerful force in the universe. It's the only power on earth that "never fails" according to Saint Paul. Maybe it doesn't always change things exactly like we want. But change things it most certainly does.

* All names have been changed to protect privacy.