The following essay was published in the July 2010 issue of Bay State Parent magazine, a local magazine for Worcester County MA parents. This was the first post I ever published on my old blog. He died on May 9, 2014, ten years after we met him, weekly visits that changed our life. Please say a prayer for him.
weekly visits that changed our family’s life
Bay State Parent | July 2010 | Shrewsbury, MA
About six years ago, in 2004, my husband suggested we take our children to visit an elderly person once a week to teach the children about respect and giving. At the time we had a 9-year-old boy, Max, and two baby girls, Abigail and Grace. Our parish put us in touch with a man we call “Mr. Ray.”
Right away Max and Mr. Ray discovered they were a good match at checkers. We developed a routine of visiting a few hours each week and just chatting over checker matches. Mr. Ray was hard to beat. Max taught him other games, and they sparred at those while the little sisters searched for toys around his house. The girls made an imaginary mouse-friend in his grandfather clock and turned some furnace tools into pretend house cleaning equipment. Perhaps spending two hours a week losing a checkers game wasn’t the pinnacle of excitement for a boy, but we sensed very early that these visits were meaningful.
Over the next few years Max came on the weekly visits less as he grew older and became busier with school activities, but the girls still visited with me. Our family was changing, but Mr. Ray was there, always the same. He helped to welcome three more children into our family. Checkers was phased out and replaced by preschool card games such as Old Maid, Go Fish, and Slap Jack, and a weekly ritual of eating cookies began, Mr. Ray cookies. Mr. Ray started collecting enough lollipops at the bank to pass out to the children, just little things. We developed a seasonal pattern of sitting by the indoor stove during cold weather and on the back porch during warmer weather. We shared our holiday meals and brought him palm branches at Easter for his wife’s grave, who we learned died on the very same day Abigail had been born. When the girl’s started school at St. Mary’s Elementary in Worcester, we were surprised when Mr. Ray told us he was born and raised a few blocks away from that school and even attended as a boy. Mr. Ray developed a special fondness for Abigail. He taught her how to count to 100 while brushing her hair. Grace drew him pictures and dressed up his hair. I think the girls reminded him of his own daughter who, he said, was killed at a young age.
When we decided to name our next daughter after my grandmother, Marie, Mr. Ray had questions about her. Both Mr. Ray and my grandmother lived full lives serving large families, and they both lived alone with their memories of good times in the past. My grandparents lived all their lives in Texas, raising a family together on the same piece of land. My grandparents’ daily habits were different than Mr. Ray’s were with his wife, but the reasons were the same—they served each other. My grandmother cooked the beef my grandfather raised on their farm. Mr. Ray’s wife made Italian dishes with the tomatoes he raised in their garden. He felt a connection to my grandmother because of our talks, and sent her a card when she got sick and was placed in a nursing home in Texas. When she died in 2007, we talked a lot about life and death, spirituality and the body. He helped me grieve. There’s much to be learned from someone who has lived so much longer than you have. It gives you a new perspective.
Someday I may be alone. What stories will I have to tell? Who will listen?
In many of our conversations, Mr. Ray repeated how he had never seen a doctor in his life and was emphatic on never seeing one—ever. One day we showed up for a visit, he answered the door, greeted us, and took the new baby from me while I got the other girls inside. When we sat down in his living room, he closed his eyes and dropped his head. He began to fall sideways, and I caught him. He was unconscious. I had no choice but to call 911, and they came to take him to the hospital. As the ambulance drove away, I hoped he would forgive me for breaching his record.
The hospital stay was filled with tests. He had surgery for a pacemaker. Then he was placed in a nursing home where he developed pneumonia. He told me he felt ready to die, sick and in pain, unsure if he’d ever leave the nursing home. Although they were probably too noisy, I took the kids occasionally to see him in the nursing home too. Gradually, he got better and even started visiting with the other patients and reading lots of books. I can never know for sure what happened in his mind, but he told me he held on because he knew he had a purpose to live. It still amazes me that we happened to visit him just in time to help him that day I found him unconscious. Two years later, I would see him give our newest daughter, Lucy, a Mr. Ray cookie.
Even more amazing, since he left the hospital he seems to have gotten younger. We don’t visit in his living room or back porch anymore. No! Mr. Ray has started planning outings for us. He stretches us to do things that I wouldn’t normally do with all these small children. The addition of a little boy named Jack makes six children in our home now and Mr. Ray is a big help when we go places. We had a picnic at the park where Mr. Ray pushed swings and helped the kids do the monkey bars. He had more energy than I did! I found myself sitting at the picnic table and reveling at the sight of this 89-year-old man laughing and running around like a young man, with my kids hanging all over him. Mr. Ray even recently finished taking a Ti-Chi class on Tuesday nights and was quite proud of himself. He now takes walks in the malls, visits people in nursing homes, and is actually kind of difficult to find at home anymore.
There was one particular outing that we will never forget. This past fall he planned a trip for us to the Beirne family-run Berlin Orchards. He arranged everything. We picked apples, took a hayride, painted our faces and some pumpkins, rode the horses, played with the chickens and ate a picnic lunch. It was a beautiful day, a memorable day full of smiles and love.* I am so thankful for that memory, and I look forward to more of them with Mr. Ray. Early in our visits he once asked me where all his energy went. Wherever it went, he sure seems to have found it again.
Our friendship with Mr. Ray has turned into something greater than just a weekly visit. It has taught our children so much, added depth to our lives and purpose to his. Friendships are great gifts. The gift of his friendship will outlive Mr. Ray because he has changed our family’s life. Someday eighty years from now I hope my children pass the same gift on to other families . . . checkers, cookies, swings, and smiles. Thank you Mr. Ray.
*He actually took us back to the orchard the next year too, after this article was published in 2010.
Pictures tell the story better . . .
Rest in peace, Mr. Ray.