Tag Archives: service

It’s Never Too Late

It was an unfortunate set of circumstances that led to me doing some of the best social work I have ever done.  As the director of a large program serving adults with mental illness, I always carried a small caseload.  It gave me my “fix” of client contact (a key ingredient to my professional happiness) and kept my clinical skills sharp. No matter how busy my director duties kept me, it was something I insisted on doing.

“Nancy” was one of the clients on my caseload, but she was not our typical client.  She arrived precisely on time every Thursday morning at 10:00 a.m. and her punctuality was so sharp I am pretty sure you could set the atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado by her arrival.  She would wait for me in the waiting room, her hair perfectly coiffed, lipstick carefully applied, hands patiently folded in her lap.  When I would go to retrieve her, the look of recognition on her face offered only a distant warmth.

Nancy never really required much from me or from anyone, really.  She was remarkably self-reliant and only stayed in mental health services to ensure she never repeated the horrors of her distant past.  She would sit with me and independently set up her medication tray for the next week.  She would indulge me by reassuring me that she was happy with her housing, she had followed through on all of her necessary medical and dental appointments, and that she had swallowed every pill prescribed to her in the preceding week.  She would take a quick social detour to talk about movies with me – a common hobby we shared – and tell me what movie she planned to see that upcoming weekend.  Every Saturday afternoon, rain or shine, she saw a matinee.  This was part of the routine, a routine that never allowed for deviation.  After our quick and perfunctory visit, Nancy would leave and make her way to the local clubhouse – another thing she did each and every day.

It was a sad and shocking Wednesday when I got a call from the staff at Nancy’s clubhouse that Nancy had passed away.  She had not shown up there for a day, and then two, when they called her landlord to do a wellness check.  Sure enough, she had passed away peacefully in her sleep.  They were calling to give me the information for the medical examiner and to ask for my help with funeral plans.  It wasn’t the first time I ever had to do this, sadly, as for many of our clients we are the family making the arrangements.  I knew what to do.

In the days that followed, however, I learned that I had my work cut out for me.  I went straight to the funeral home I had used for years.  They were situated in a neighborhood familiar to many of the people we serve, and as a small, independent funeral home they had a lot of heart and compassion.  I worked with the staff to make the difficult decisions without any input – this was one of the many things Nancy and I had never thought to discuss.  The staff at the funeral home and I bonded, and on the way out the door the director gave me his business card.  It was a card that on the front had the funeral home logo, and on the back said “Thank You for Smoking.”  I needed that laugh.

The complicating factor was that Nancy had a fair amount of money saved up in her bank account.  Of course she did; I am telling you this woman had her life put together better than most people I know.  This money was going to be needed to proceed with the funeral arrangements, but the bank told me it could not be accessed without a signature from her next of kin.  This, I knew, was going to be no small feat.  And no small feat it was, indeed.

Nancy had been estranged from her family for decades.  She, of course, was far too guarded to share the details of the story.  But my guess is that like many of the people we serve, her symptoms and her illness got in the way of her relationships.  I had to do some digging, but I did find her brother’s name buried deep in some old records.  I took a deep breath and I picked up the phone.  When her brother answered, I stumbled through trying to explain who I was.  There was no remorse at the other end of the line, no sadness for the news of a loss.  There was, instead, anger.  Lots and lots of anger.  Anger that this person he once fiercely loved in his youth had not been in his family’s life for years upon years.  Anger about the things that had transpired and had led to the relationship’s demise.  Anger that now he was supposed to do something, however small, to help.

It took several hours of conversation over a couple of days to get the brother to come around.  He needed validation – the one thing that almost every angry person ever needs – and he got a lot of it.  He was validated that his experience, heart-breaking as it was, was not all that uncommon.  He was validated that mental illness is cruel and sometimes takes no prisoners.  He was validated that it was okay he was mad, for most people in his circumstance would be.  And slowly, ever so slowly, he came around.  He agreed to go to the bank, “but that’s all I’m doing.”  Fair enough.

It was really all I needed, because I had a funeral to plan and that had been the only thing holding me back.  The day of the funeral arrived, and the funeral home was packed with all of Nancy’s friends and colleagues from the clubhouse.  It was quite moving, actually, to juxtapose this scene with the images I had formed over the past few days of her family estrangement.  Shortly before the services started, I saw a man standing at the back of the room.  It’s funny how sometimes a face perfectly matches a voice, and I knew in an instant who it was – it was Nancy’s brother.  I gingerly approached and introduced myself to this curmudgeonly man who seemed to have found some love in that heart of his.  He thanked me for reaching out and quickly set his limits again.  “I’m not staying.”  I assured him it was beautiful that he showed up at all.  What I could see in his eyes was a little bit of mourning and a little bit of peace.  What he had lost over the years with his sister, clearly a lot of other people had found.

The service was lovely and included all kinds of funny stories that few people knew about our private, guarded Nancy.  I left that day and I thought I had finally been able to do something for Nancy – if nothing else, I gave her a good send off.  This was good enough for me.

A couple months later, I was at my desk when my phone rang.  I recognized the voice, but it took me a couple of minutes to orient to who it was.  It was Nancy’s brother, this time reaching out to me.  There was a warmth in his voice that I hadn’t heard before.  He told me that he wanted to call and thank me for doing what he would have not been able to do by planning Nancy’s funeral, and I assured him it was my privilege and honor.  But mostly, he said, he was calling to let me know that he had taken Nancy’s ashes a few days prior and placed them in his family’s mausoleum.  After decades of being on her own, Nancy was right back where she belonged – with her family.  I hung up the phone, and wiped away some tears.  It’s never too late, I thought, and the world felt a little more right in that moment.

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The Wonderful Walt

For years my brother-in-law had spoken of his co-worker Walt with such high esteem that his very essence almost seemed implausible.  Walt, it seemed, was the kind of guy who naturally elicited phrases like “salt of the earth” and “a good egg” whenever spoken of.  I had heard about him so much and in such endearing terms I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to relate when I finally met him.  I remember the first time I met him, too, and to compensate for my own feelings of comparative inadequacy I think I made a few cracks about needing to roll out the red carpet for the famous Walt.  But then I spent a little time with him, and right away I got it. No one had been exaggerating about Walt.

Over the years, I got to know Walt a bit, here and there.  There were the occasional gatherings at one place or another.  A couple of the gatherings were even at Walt’s house, and it was fun to peel back the layers.  This was a guy who had some serious interests.  Baseball, Coca-Cola memorabilia, rockets, robots.  So cool, I thought.  I need some interests.  How does that even happen, getting some interests?  I have no idea. But Walt had a bunch of ’em.

So fast forward a good two or three years, and several of us were assembled for my brother-in-law’s birthday at the Mineshaft of all places.  My friend and I were playing some of the silly games and drinking beers.  We were chit-chatting and making cracks at one another and doing what people do in those scenarios.  Walt popped by to say a quick hello and we did our cordial thing.  As he walked away, I said to my friend, “That’s Walt.  He is such an interesting guy.  He’s all into rockets and robots and all these fun things that I don’t get.”

My friend stopped cold in her tracks.  “Wait a minute.  His name is Walt.  And he likes rockets.  Is that what you said?”  I confirmed that indeed I had, and my friend put it all together.  She told me she was pretty sure he had been coming to one of our agency’s group homes on a regular basis for years to take one of the residents with mental illness to the hobby shop to work on model rockets.

We quickly called Walt back and he confirmed that yes, he had a friend who lived at Jackson House and that for years he had been helping with model rocketry.  He had initially met this friend at the local rocket launches and had quickly realized he was “different” from everyone else – and sometimes, sadly, he was not so well received by others in the group.  Walt took it upon himself to take this man under his wing and lead by example.  He didn’t just decide to help him at the monthly rocket launches and protect him from the scrutiny of others, he decided to get involved in a bigger way.  Almost every week from that day forward, he picked up his friend, took him to the hobby shop and spent hours with him working on model rockets.  He even arranged for the hobby shop to let them use a special room that was quieter and less stimulating.  As time went on, Walt got to know his friend’s family and brought them Christmas gifts each year.  He took phone calls at odd times and sometimes repeatedly so.  Walt confessed that he was pretty sure that he got more benefit out of the friendship than the man he had befriended.

It takes a lot to blow me away, and in my line of work I sometimes think I have seen it all.  But I hadn’t seen it all, it turns out.  I had never seen anyone do this.  Deciding to befriend one of our clients, without expecting anything in return.  Getting involved, and staying involved for years on end.  Becoming not just a friend, but an extended family member.  And doing so, for all of these years, so quietly and unassuming, without any call for recognition.  This, I thought, is the kind of human spirit we are all surely capable of, yet few achieve.  This is love.

Years more have passed, and I still see Walt every now and and again.  I always ask, and he always confirms:  he is still going to the hobby shop every week with his friend.  I have to admit, I look at Walt differently than I did in those first few years I knew him.  I look at him with a warmth and a respect on a level I don’t often feel.  He reminds me of the good in the world and makes me want to do better.  And while that kind of good just doesn’t happen every day, Walt has reminded me it should.

Princess Buttercup

The emails had gone back and forth for some time, and my college pal Angela and I eventually confirmed our long-awaited plans. A road trip to St. Louis was in order, and a chance to see the Brewers play the Cardinals at Busch stadium over the 4th of July weekend would soon be mine. Somewhere along the way in the chain of emails, Ang made note: “Don’t forget, the 4th of July is Princess Buttercup’s first birthday, and we will need to celebrate.” Nevermind that the 4th of July was also my travel partner’s birthday, or America’s birthday, for that matter–this day was going to be dedicated to a furry little friend that I in no time had dubbed “P.B.”

Princess Buttercup is a special little kitty…heavy on the special. To be honest, she has a face that only a mother could love, and a forehead the size of a frying pan. She came home with Ang after one night of many spent volunteering at the animal shelter, with strong cautions that she probably had hydrocephalus and probably wouldn’t make it. Turns out, they were probably wrong. Princess Buttercup may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but a year later she is thriving. She chases the tails of her other feline friends (noted by Ang to be “approximately a million years old”), gladly snuggles up on the couch with a willing partner whenever the opportunity presents itself, and looks up at you with her alien-like, watery but ever so sweet eyes. She is a keeper.

She’s a keeper because Ang decided she was. And really, that’s all it takes. One living being to look at another living being and proclaim, “You are mine. I will take care of you.” All too often in life we get bogged down with all the stuff–the errands, the chores, the work, the over-commitments and obligations we eventually come to resent. In reality, if we just slowed down for a minute and took note, we could all find our own Princess Buttercup. Maybe it’s our elderly neighbor or a co-worker or a kid who needs a mentor. Whoever it is, just imagine what a little time, attention and love from you could bring. In my estimation, that’s how we change the world. We don’t need to donate a million dollars or feed an entire starving country to make a difference. All it takes to make the world a better place is to pick one living creature and decide to treat them like they are somebody really important. I’m going to be on the lookout for my Princess Buttercup, starting now. Care to join me?

Grandma Swearingen

I believe it was Mahatma Gandhi who said, “The best way to find yourself, is to lose yourself in the service of others.” For years this quote was carefully placed on the bulletin board above my desk at work, and the meaning behind it has undoubtedly been a guidepost for my career. But truth be told, I didn’t need a spiritual leader from India to teach me this. I had Grandma Swearingen.

Kathryn Pflederer Swearingen was my dad’s mom, and was the epicenter of our family. She passed on much too soon in 1981 when she lost her short but brave battle with pancreatic cancer. Even so, to this day, every Swearingen family gathering eventually results in the warm embrace of fond Grandma Swearingen memories. We really can’t help ourselves.

Grandma was tireless in her efforts to take care of the people around her. She embodied the notion that a stranger was merely a friend she had not met yet. But to her family, her service was unrelenting. Much to Grandpa Swearingen’s delight (“Fox” as she loved to call him), her kitchen was a virtual pie factory. But not just any old run of the mill pie factory–the kind that phoned you ahead of time to inquire about your particular pie requests. (Peach, thank you very much.) There is no question that Grandma took tremendous joy in the little things she could do for the ones she loved. She would wash your hair (even her adult sons lined up for this special treat), make you a fresh lemonade shake-up with real lemons (just like the ones at the Tazewell County fair), and loved to scratch the back of whoever was sitting next to her (hence the constant vying of myself and my cousins for this premiere seating opportunity.) My favorite Grandma Swearingen memory, however, were the hours upon hours we spent playing the board game “Payday.” At the end of each game, I exclaimed, “Again!'” and if her enthusiasm ever waned, I surely never knew it.

I look back now and I know that there was no way Grandma and Grandpa had much money. Grandma was an elementary school lunch lady and Grandpa was the janitor at the bank. But everytime they made the trek to our farm, Grandma came armed with a gift of some sort. A stuffed dog, that I promptly named Puffy and carried with me everywhere for years. A butterfly pin she found that reminded her of me, because she knew I loved to collect butterflies. Something fashion forward, like my first pair of clogs. And, even though she had never heard of Harriet Tubman, she had gotten wind that I was obsessed with this particular historical figure and she searched every bookstore in central Illinois until she found a book that fit the bill–no small feat, I am sure.

Grandma loved to laugh–most often at herself, and even in moments of confrontation her ways were as gentle as a warm summer wind. I remember a time when my mom requested I go to the basement to retrieve some canned goods for the approaching dinner hour. Being the self-centered brat that only I could be, this somehow enraged me and I proceeded to huff, puff and loudly stomp down and back up every rickety step to that basement. Grandma paid no attention to my bad behavior, and calmly looked at my mom and said, “Well, she might have a hard time doing it sometimes, but that Jenny sure can be a good helper.” Her words stung and startled me to attention. I was keenly aware that I had let her down, and that it was time for me to grow up and learn to serve my family just as she had done for her whole life.

The thing about Grandma Swearingen was, everybody felt like they were her favorite. The fact of the matter is, I think everyone was. Almost 30 years have passed since I last saw her, but her presence is always with me. I can’t imagine the woman I would have become without having known her. I just can’t thank her enough, and know that my service–to my family, my friends, and people with mental illness–is a meager tribute to the greatest woman I ever knew.