Many of us who have spent Thursdays together for longer than many of us might care to remember, know that some years ago my mother suffered a massive, right-brain stroke. She didn’t deserve it, but that’s what happened.
As a result, overnight (literally) she required 24-7 care, and her “reality” changed, but she remained grounded in the social graces: Quick to smile and quick to pick-up on the “social cues” from those around her. She remained a “lady,” in the classic sense.
Soon after, I sauntered in and found her in a wheelchair, smiling, conversing with a couple of very nice caregivers. She smiled immediately and said, “I was watching the video of your guys’ wedding last night. (There is no video of our wedding). That sure was fun to include the penguin in the wedding.” (She had always been fascinated by the movies about penguins, but there was no penguin in our wedding)
“How ‘bout that?” I said. I am my mother’s son.
“Was it hard to train him to walk that way in the procession?” she asked.
“Not at all,” said I. “You know, he’s pretty smart.”
“Wow!” she smiled.
“Wow!” said the caregivers, laughing. “You don’t REALLY have a penguin do you?” said the caregivers, both of whom were within inches of my mom.
I looked at my mom, who was waiting expectantly for the answer, then looked at the caregivers, who were expectantly waiting for the answer, and said, “Absolutely.”
My mother smiled. The caregivers stared.
“What’s his name?” A caregiver asked.
“Rudy,” I said, looking (I thought) intensely into her eyes.
“Wow!!” said the caregivers — again, mercifully, I changed the subject.
And thus was born the legend of Rudy the Penguin.
My mom received good care from genuinely decent people, for which I will be forever grateful — genuinely decent people who were amazed by the idea of a penguin as a house pet, so the legend spread throughout the facility in short order, and I became (I presume) the “guy who has a penguin.”
And, sure enough: EVERY time I came for a visit, SOMEONE would inquire about Rudy:
“What do you feed him?” (Sardines)
“Do you take him for walks?” (Sure, but we also have a giant litter box)
“Where did you get him?” (From a buddy in Alaska …)
And each question was inevitably asked when my mother, listening intently to every exchange, was within a foot or two of the conversation.
Over time, I began to feel a bit guilty about perpetuating this urban myth, and looked for an opportunity to take people aside for a reality check, but good caregivers in busy facilities are very busy people, and they appear and disappear in and out of rooms and closets and hallways at an astounding rate! Over time, I just decided, “Oh, to Hell with it,” because it just wasn’t the most important thing.
Which is how legends are born.
I think I eventually told a wonderful nurse the truth about Rudy. I don’t know if she ever shared it with staff.
I do know that I have been in this business long enough to believe that those of us who consider ourselves “whole” can NEVER rely on the belief that a person in our care doesn’t hear, doesn’t see or doesn’t understand that she or he can’t comprehend what goes on around them.
That it isn’t possible to (unintentionally) offend, demean or frighten because “she doesn’t understand.”
We have no idea what she understands.
We’re guessing, on a good day. And the simple fact that she may spend most days and most nights in a separate reality, does NOT guarantee that feelings can’t be hurt — that a life can’t be diminished — by an “innocent” comment.
I have never been willing to take that chance, and I am not willing to take that chance, now.
Many of us who have walked that caregiving “walk” are nodding, “You can never be sure.” And we are sure of that because we’ve lived it and seen it and probably made the same mistake. The same horrible mistake! The mistake that many of us remember long after the walk is over.
A simple comment. A look, with a knowing smile. A rolled set of eyes.
A life made less.
Sometimes, it’s cruelty — but rarely. Sometimes, it’s a professional who’s so awash in their professionalism that they’ve sacrificed their humanity — but rarely.
It might be the arrogance of youth or it might be the unmeant contempt of “familiarity.” Or it might be just the unconsidered crack that takes another bit of life out of a life that doesn’t have that many bits left.
But I’m not willing to take that chance. I wasn’t then, and I’m not now.
A life is either “precious” or it isn’t, and if it is, then it remains precious, to the end — and deserves to be nurtured and protected.
And if the company of a penguin named Rudy makes that path a little easier, well …
I’ll go get the sardines.
Mark Harvey is the director of Information and Assistance for Olympic Area Agency on Aging. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 532-0520 in Aberdeen, (360) 942-2177 in Raymond or (360) 642-3634. FACEBOOK: Olympic Area Agency on Aging-Information &Assistance.