Some things in life are easy to describe. I have a friend named Jessie. We have worked together for years. At first, it was at a physical therapy clinic in New Jersey. Jessie ran the front desk and made sure that the scheduling and insurance authorization ran smoothly. I later convinced Jessie to apply for a job in the nursing home wherein I worked. The nursing home was a slipshod organization; I was not sure if Jessie wanted this job, but I felt that I needed her. The nursing home needed her more. When Jessie accepted this position, everything changed in that place.
Jessie’s job description was to coordinate the care of the elderly for their rehabilitation needs. Not only did Jessie perform these requisite duties, she also adored the residents of the nursing home. When dropping off printed information to each of the four nursing stations at this place, she was found helping residents getting dressed, she lifted them on and off toilets, and she pushed patients in their wheelchairs to her desk and talked to them while she did her computer work. These qualities in a person like Jessie are easy to write about.
This day was somewhat different from the other days that we worked at the nursing home. This day is harder to describe. The patients had awakened earlier, even the ones with dementia. It was as though they knew that something unusual was happening. The nurses were taking extra time with dressing and grooming the residents. By 9 am that morning, the residents had a look of thrilled anticipation, as they sat in circles in their wheelchairs.
It was around that time, in late morning, that droves of families entered the building. Jessie and I had never witnessed this before. People pulled up in SUV’s and carried trays of turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pies, yam casseroles and they set up their Thanksgiving meals in the Dining Hall of the nursing home. As a staff, we had never before seen such attention paid to the residents.
Jessie is an avid football fan, but primarily of the New York Giants. She rushed around to each of the four wings of the nursing home and ensured that football was on every television. We brought the patients to the rehab gym and blasted Chubby Checker, while they walked and exercised and their families watched in awe. Jessie and I ate a Thanksgiving meal made by the cooking staff, after we were finished taking care of everyone.
That was year one of our Thanksgiving tradition. Jessie and I worked together on this day for the next two years. We grew to look forward to it. There were great-grandmothers who held infant relatives for the first time. Toddlers wandered down hallways and banged into wheelchairs, they were picked up and consoled. Middle-aged men shouted against referee calls in football. The cooking staff of the nursing home took great pride in their green bean casserole recipe. Families offered their food to other residents and brought the food to their tables (for residents who had no family at all to visit).
This next part of this story is even more difficult to describe. It was after our third Thanksgiving together that Jessie was involved in a motor vehicle accident. One of the vertebrae in her neck was shattered. Thereafter, everyone in the nursing home asked how she was doing. I never answered them, because I did not know how she was doing. Nobody knew. Not even the doctors.
Jessie had become paralyzed and could no longer walk. She needs a wheelchair to get around now. Jessie also needs a caregiver to address her physical needs. This came as a shock, as this is the same woman who helped others to address theirs. Jessie used to help diaper people. This was never her job. But she did it anyway, because she has a fiery heart and refuses to allow others to ask for help. She just gives it, without question.
Jessie lives a few hours away in Pennsylvania. I think about the losses that we have sustained. We have lost most of the elderly patients we cared for. Jessie has lost her ability to walk. It seems all too easy to fixate on these very hard realities. And these things are quite real; they cannot be reversed. Just as the old people in nursing homes without families cannot be soothed by some green bean casserole made by the staff.
But here is the thing that sustains the holiday of Thanksgiving: there are families who welcome the ones without families to their tables. The clamor of the preparation and dressing of the elderly in their finest clothing for this holiday is important. When Jessie changed the channel of the televisions so that our patients could watch football, she changed everything. Jessie created a holiday, in a place known for a lack of celebration. I will be with my family this Thanksgiving, and Jessie will be with hers.
I miss my nursing home Thanksgivings with Jessie. I miss the woman who made a festival out of nothing at all. When I smell turkey, I remember Jessie hurrying around to push patients in their wheelchairs, so that they could find a piece of joy. Jessie made everyone feel like family. While the New York Giants may not be doing their best lately, I thank the Master of the Universe for football, for crying toddlers who crash into wheelchairs, for the very old people who teach us everything we need to know, and for the Jessies of the world.