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Jul. 22nd, 2012 at 12:43 am
Clark Henry started out as a random, accidental assignment. He had recently been transferred to a nursing home in our small town. I got a call on Sunday morning from someone asking me if I would be able to pick him up for church that morning. I was asked because we lived closest to the nursing home. I was busy wrangling the kids into their church clothes and Rob was already at church for early morning meetings but I figured picking up a stranger for church would be my defense when we came straggling into church late.
I went to the home and found Clark sitting in the front room all dressed up and ready to go. He was a 60ish man, slight of build and using a 4-prong cane to help him balance. He wore coke bottle glasses that magnified his eyes to resemble deep blue owl eyes. He was able to hoist himself into my van with minimal assistance. We exchanged pleasantries while driving the church. I was impressed with his effect on my children. They were quiet and no one dared to fight over who was touching them. After church I told Clark and the leadership at church that I would be able to pick him up every week since the nursing home was only a block away from our house. That made Clark and the Elders at church happy.
Really, it was all about me. With Clark along I had a built in excuse for being late, with no questions asked. Rob was in church leadership and left early for meetings every Sunday so the burden of getting the children up, fed, dressed and to church on time was my responsibility. It was harder to accomplish than it sounds. The kids weren’t particularly excited about going to three hours of hardcore church. There is a big difference in cooperation when you are headed to the county fair vs. religious services. Rob and I had had more than one discussion about my difficulties with getting to church on time. We were at a stalemate about it at the time Clark Henry entered our lives. Clark was my ticket to getting difficult expectations off my back. A lot is forgiven when you are in the service of your fellowman.
Every Sunday until the weather turned ugly in the dead of winter, we picked up Clark and brought him back to the nursing home after church. I started to get to know the nursing staff and recognized Clark did not live in a nice place. He was in a nursing home for poor people who were living solely on Social Security and Medicare. There was a terrible smell of peeded clothing and laundry that permeated the building. The walls were painted an ugly institutional green. The fake flower arrangements were dusty and had seen better days. The posted meal calendar revealed a lot of white bread and oatmeal was being served. No fresh fruit or vegetables were ever on the menu. It seemed to resemble a prison more than a home.
Clark lived for Sundays. He had no close family members still living. He never had anyone take him out of the nursing home and rarely had visits from extended family. The kids grew to like Clark. He would ask about their week and listen as they prattled on. Somewhere along the way, we started visiting him on Monday nights as a family. We played games and would have a short, kid-centered gospel lesson. Clark’s favorite part of the Monday nights was that I would bring pizza and we would eat that for supper in the dining room. I could tell that some of the other residents were envious of the attention we gave Clark. It was such a depressing place to spend any amount of time.
I can’t remember how long we had been slowly befriending Clark when the kids asked if we could make Clark part of our family. We had no family nearby, so it seemed harmless. We printed up an official “adoption” certificate and presented it to Clark. He got tears in his eyes and posted it on the wall over his bed, the only decoration on his side of the room he shared with a shriveled old man who didn’t speak. I felt a twinge of anxiety as I realized that Clark was taking this gesture very seriously. I wondered if I had just committed myself to more than I bargained for.
It is easy to help out someone who is pleasant and can take care of themselves. It is also rewarding to pat yourself on the back and feel like you are earning real eternal credit in heaven for your good deeds. Taking Clark to church and visiting him occasionally was simple enough and I enjoyed the compliments from others about how nice I was. I was nice, wasn’t I? It was so obvious and right where everyone to could see.
As we approached the one year mark of helping Clark, his health took a nosedive. His legs got shaky and he couldn’t walk with just a cane. He quickly moved from cane, to walker, to walker with wheels and a seat to rest in, then finally a wheelchair. Parkinson’s disease was robbing his ability to walk, to talk and even swallow. He fell numerous times at the nursing home and had black eyes from being unable to brace himself before he hit the floor.
I got more involved with his care because he explained to me without his ridiculously thick glasses that broke and hadn’t been fixed by the substandard nursing home in weeks, he was legally blind. Those discussions lead into learning he was born with poor vision and had graduated high school from the Illinois School for the Blind. I made calls on Clark’s behalf and expedited the repair of his glasses. I also arranged for him to transfer to a better quality nursing home across town, but at the last minute the nursing home staff bullied him into staying put.
Clark asked me to become his official guardian, overseeing his Social Security stipend and being the person in charge of medical decisions regarding his care. I declined because he had extended family loosely in the general area and I was wary of anyone accusing me of mishandling his money or in some way taking advantage of him. My reluctance to get further involved kept him in a vicious cycle of having his personal items stolen from staff and never fully getting the medical care he deserved.
I was now struggling to lift him up into my van and heaving his wheelchair into the back while wearing high heels and panty hose. He started wearing adult diapers full time after he had an accident while at church. It was hard to see him decline, and more importantly, it became a burden to serve him. I didn’t want to have to change his diapers when they got soiled while at church. That was beyond the limits of my willingness to serve the least of these, my brethren. I ignored the stench and was fully prepared to challenge the first person who dared to comment to deal with it themselves.
Clark continued to decline for another year. In the winter I didn’t take him to church at all and I was grateful for the break. When spring returned and I resumed picking Clark up, he couldn’t even partake of the sacrament without help. I put the morsel of bread into his mouth and prayed he wouldn’t choke on it. I carefully gave him sips from the small cup of water. Often he would choke on either the bread or the water. He wore bibs to catch his drool. I started carrying Kleenex to wipe his mouth. He was unable to reach up himself.
The ward instituted a once a month Lunch and Linger, where everyone brought a dish to share and to visit after services. I dreaded the meal part with Clark. He needed to be fed and it was messy. He choked a lot because he was losing his ability to chew and swallow. It was a slow, yucky process to feed him and while that was happening, everyone else in the room ignored him, I like to think out of politeness. The reality was it was gross and I didn’t like doing it. I am ashamed to admit that more than once I parked him at a table and then on the pretense of needing to talk to someone, abandoned him so I wouldn’t have to feed him. Another woman, Linda Drake wordlessly did the dirty work for me. We never talked about it. I never acknowledged her service or even offered an explanation for my disappearing acts.
There finally came the Sunday I couldn’t get Clark in and out of our van by myself. I needed someone bigger than me to lift him in and out. He had lost a lot of weight over time and I have to admit, every Sunday I went to the nursing home I was inwardly surprised he was still alive.
The Bishop commented to me once that it hard to believe Clark was still hanging in there.
He was no longer speaking in other than garbled whispers. It was difficult to understand him and all the ease of caring for him, even from a distance, was gone. I can’t say how long I continued to bring him to church, but after months of bringing his almost completely useless body to and from services, the day came that the taxiing stopped.
I wish I could say that I kept up the family visits and that I substituted visiting his nursing home for our car rides together. But, of course, I didn’t. Our relationship with Clark was now going on three years, with no end in sight. I would drop by to check on him when I had a moment or if someone called from the nursing home, saying Clark had a request for candy bars or something simple. Other than that, I slipped back into the chaotic frenzy of my own life with only an occasional pang of regret over Clark.
Then came the day I got the call Clark was sick with a terrible fever. He was barely conscious for days until he was transferred to the hospital due to dehydration. Linda Drake and her husband Paul, were doing a better job of checking in with Clark and they called to tell me what hospital room Clark was in. I went to see him, but he was heavily sedated, breathing shallowly, skin and bones jutting out through the sheet. He was in the hospital for a week, everyone expecting him to die at anytime. But he didn’t pass. After he was declared stable, he was shipped back to the nursing home, where he was still medically sedated and fighting a raging fever. Finally, the call came that the end was near. Rob and I went to his room at the nursing home to say goodbye. I cried and held his withered hand. I quietly apologized for not being a better sister to him. I knew he was counting on me and in many, many small but important ways I closed my eyes to his needs.
It was too hard, too gross and too scary to allow myself to fully embrace Clark in his neediness.
He died the next day, and I was grateful he was finally released from suffering. I was also glad to be freed from my guilty unease about my responsibilities to him.
It has been 8 years since Clark died. I think of him and wonder what I would do differently now. I can remember so clearly my feelings of revulsion and fear. I can’t say even now that I would cross some of the lines that I drew. What I do know is that I am not as self-sacrificing and Christ-like as I pretend to be. And that is disappointing.