A few weeks back I was talking to a good friend and former work colleague (we’ll call her Rhonda). We both have experienced caring for aging parents. Rhonda’s journey continues. Her mother (we’ll call her Charlotte) suffers from stage 4 dementia, has a tendency for UTI’s, and recently fell and broke her pelvis. As she described all that Charlotte and she were experiencing, I identified with her anguish, but realized that my job for that moment was simply to listen; Rhonda had too few people that understood her journey.
Near the near the end of our conversation, Rhonda told a story. It seemed to be a rather benign story, but as I continued to listen I heard the beauty of a simple act of kindness.
Life is full of stressors. I would place caring for elderly parents near the top. There are so many mental, emotional and physical demands. Am I doing the right thing? What happened now? No, mom/dad, I’m Peggy/Sam your son/daughter. Doing this with grace, love, and care to honor our parents can be quite difficult. When we work full time, care for others, and deal with the everyday nature of ‘living,’ caring for elderly parents can be a lot like caring for a child, maybe worse. If we have siblings, this can either be a blessing (extra help), or an additional burden if they are not engaged.
That is why Rhonda’s story made such an impact. The story she told was how her mother, throughout her life, cared a great deal about her hair. She would go to one person to have her hair done, and that person would make it just right. (While our needs and outlook change as we age, how we look remains important to us throughout our life.) For Rhonda’s mom, despite all she was losing mentally and physically, her hair symbolized the last bastion of dignity.
Charlotte has been pretty much bed-ridden for some time. This has made it impossible for her to go anywhere to get her hair done. It has become an increasing irritant for Charlotte. Rhonda was looking for the right match of personality and willingness to come to Charlotte’s residence. Even if the personality seemed okay, Charlotte would have to trust this person. This was increasingly difficult, as it is with many dementia patients.
The search went on for weeks, which did not help. Rhonda was near exhaustion – mentally, emotionally, physically. And then one day, she happened to be telling this story to someone that she knew cut hair. She said to Rhonda, “I’d be happy to cut your mom’s hair.” Rhonda couldn’t believe what she was hearing, yet she also knew there was some additional ‘vetting’ before Charlotte’s hair being done became a reality.
Rhonda arranged a time for the hairdresser (we’ll call her Kim) to visit Charlotte. Kim was gentle, kind, and patient. They had two more meetings. Finally, it was time to do Charlotte’s hair.
What’s important to remember is Rhonda’s state in that moment when Kim said that she would do her mom’s hair (near exhaustion – mentally, physically, emotionally); we have all experienced this state when life looks bleak. In that very moment, someone walked into Rhonda’s life with what might appear to be an almost insignificant act of kindness. But it wasn’t. It was a moment of relief, a moment when a little more hope appeared in Rhonda’s life; that she would be able to give her mother a gift. A gift of having her hair done.
Sometimes our ‘small’ gifts are ‘no big deal’ for us. We say an encouraging word, we help a neighbor, we run an errand for someone, we watch a friend’s dogs, or children…we provide a haircut and style to an elderly woman.
Small gifts, well timed, can be such a breath of fresh air for the recipient. They demonstrate the great capacity of human beings to be compassionate, helping, loving, and nice. We understand the value of those interactions as an important part of living in community with others.
The grand gestures we see during natural disasters, and other calamities that befall many dozens, hundreds, thousands or more are wonderful. The small gifts, effecting one or two persons, that we have a chance to give and receive every day, are often the relief we need as the recipient; as the giver, it is a way we connect with our humanity.
The ‘gifts’ may be small, but they have the power to be transformative. For Rhonda, on a non-descript day in June, she was able to provide her mother the gift of having her hair done – a gift that would bring a great smile to Charlotte’s face during a period of her life when smiles did not come easy, or often.
Stop a moment and reflect. Where are your opportunities to give small gifts, maybe even anonymously? What gifts are you receiving? Acknowledge them, savor the giving and receiving. It will enrich your life.
To a better you…