June 30, 2016
I decided to clean out some boxes in the garage, and ran across a folder of papers written during my undergraduate years at Penn State. With a minor in Gerontology, I took a course that covered a section on “end of life” issues. One of our assignments was to write our own obituary and our last will and testament. I could not find the obituary portion and my (outdated) will resides with an attorney friend, but I ran across my testament. I want to share it because it brought back a very vivid caregiving moment that I was just telling a co-worker about recently under a different context. As I reread this assignment, I am pleased that the purpose and meaning of my life has not changed much over the past 12 years since this was written when I was on a different career path. I am tempted to do this exercise again for another 15 year comparison.
“Life: A Purposeful Meaning or A Meaningless Purpose?” ~My Personal Testament
There is no concrete answer to the question, “what is the meaning of life?” For those who are seeking an answer, I hope to give you a different perspective and share the meaning of my life through this last will and testament.
Who is to say that there is one general purpose or meaning to all humankind? What if there is no purpose or meaning as to why we exist at all? Could we simply exist because we just do…just as my mother tells me, “the reason is because I said so.” We exist not because we wish to; everyone is born into the world without a choice. However, I believe that once we are given life, we create our own purpose and meaning to our lives. Whatever this purpose may be, it is different for each of us. This testament is about the meaning of MY life:
Let me begin with a personal experience. I was working afternoon shift on an Alzheimer’s unit at the nursing home I am currently employed, when a new patient was admitted to my hall. I will call him, “The Sheriff”as a reference to his former employment. He was tall, over 6’2″and liked to dress in a suit and tie. He was very cordial and polite when speaking to the staff and other residents on the unit. He had an air about him that demanded respect. He was able to walk around without assistance but had a limp due to an old knee injury. I estimated he was in Stage 2 of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) because of his state of confusion and content of discussions while I escorted him to his bathroom at the end of the hall. As I proceeded to help him prepare to use the toilet, unbuckling his pants, all of a sudden he violently wrapped both hands around my neck and threw me up against the opposite wall of the bathroom. Throttling my neck violently, cursing and yelling derogatory names at me, he picked me up off my feet, choking the life out of me. Those of you who don’t know me, I am only about 4’8” and felt so helpless agains this strong giant. I was scared to death at the moment and although caught by surprise and terror, I was able to kick the call bell switch against the wall in hopes to get another staff member in to assist me. Thankfully, someone came to my rescue, diverting The Sheriff’s attention long enough to lower me back down to the ground. It took two other staff members to wrestle The Sheriff’s chokehold off my neck. Once released, I ran from the room to recover in the staff lounge.
Unbeknownst to why I triggered his violent reaction, I stayed out of sight from The Sheriff for a few hours, tending to other residents. While gathering others for dinner, I was checking the rooms for anyone left behind and I saw The Sheriff sitting on his bed without his pants on and trying to button his shirt (why he was undressed, I’m not quite sure but it was not unusual behavior on this unit). I treaded lightly into the room and called his name as I approached to ask if he needed any help. When he looked at me, he had the saddest look on his face and began crying. I tried to console him, yet cautiously stayed out of reach. He began sobbing and I mean really sobbing. He could barely talk and sat there just shaking his head, tears running down this old man’s face. Finally, he said to me, “Honey, I am so sorry for what I did. Something is wrong with me and I don’t know what’s happening to me. I just don’t know.” At this point, I put my arms around him and told him it was okay and I understood. He repeated his apology over and over again as he started sobbing and rocking back and forth in my arms. My heart broke as I tried comforting this tormented elder. After a few minutes, he calmed down and began trying to get dressed again. I helped him finish dressing in silence and he followed me out of the room down the hall. As we walked to the dining room, his tone and conversation changed to where he began talking about a case he was working on. The Sheriff was back in the state of dementia and disorientation. It was if nothing had happened at all in the last few hours or even minutes. The five minutes of reality had passed. For the years I worked on this unit, I honestly felt these moments of reality were the worst part of Alzheimer’s disease. I would get so angry and question God why he would afflict someone with this disease and then give them few moments of reality in which they know something is so horribly wrong with them, they are no longer the person they recognized nor any of their loved ones recognized – alienated from their own body, living in a state of mental isolation – with absolutely no control over it. I felt those moments of reality of alienation and isolation were realized were the most cruel and inhumane forms of human suffering.
After a decade working as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home – caring for elders and families – I have a slightly new perspective. I realize that it is those moments of reality that families, careworkers and even the elders themselves yearn for DESPITE how torturous and brief the moments are. It is in those moments where they are recognized: the elder recognizes who they are; the elder recognizes the family member(s) who may have been forgotten or misplaced in their mind. Although these moments are brief and sometimes filled with tears and sadness, each person is significantly affected and grateful for the recognition. This – recognition – is one essence that gives life purposeful meaning.
From infancy to elderhood, we all wish and yearn to be recognized by another. It is through this interaction of recognition (or the lack thereof) that we choose what we wish to do. We can choose to love, be kind, to avoid and even to hate. It is through recognition of ourselves and others that we create the meaning of our own lives. These moments may be brief like those afflicted with Alzheimer’s, but they are moments that can have the greatest impact on an individual, our workplace, our community, and society.
Although my own existence has only been just three decades, the purpose of my life is to recognize as many people as I can. I hope to leave each individual that I interact with the feeling of being noticed, of being recognized either by a smile, with a simple “hello”, and through the love and kindness of my actions.
In conclusion, I hope that in my will and testament, I have left you feeling recognized and cared for. These are the things that I hope I have provided in my life thus far. As I write this testament, I hope to leave behind a legacy in which I have lived my life with purpose and meaning – recognizing, caring, and believing in others.
Rebecca A. Siders, (2004, age 30)