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Sharing Christ Through the Arts

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Walking Libraries

I know some people who are “walking libraries.” While some may push carts with books, treats, and toiletries through hospital or nursing home corridors, these are not the “libraries” I speak of. Inside each caring person is a virtual “library” of other people’s stories—some shared with pride, others with tears.

Often, strangers become repositories of knowledge that the person’s family does not know. Unless it’s life/death stuff, something that might harm the teller or someone else, the listener should honor the confidentiality.

There is an old African proverb that says: “When an old man dies, a library burns.” That is true of any person. When caregivers or family don’t have time to listen to the stories, it’s a blessing to have a friend who listens. Sometimes the stories are worthy of writing down and sharing with the family—with the teller’s permission. Usually, though, they are about the hurts, fears, and triumphs of the teller’s life; things of childhood or challenges of the day.

Sometimes, as a friend’s memory fades, your recollection of key stories can reignite, at least for the moment, the lost memories.

My elderly friend, “Minnie,” is a prime example. I’d met her in the local nursing home three years earlier. While loss of short-term memory (like forgetting to eat) had brought her there, she loved to regale me with stories of her childhood. Her mother was an African princess; her father a wealthy Englishman. She loved to tell stories of her parents and the older of her eleven siblings. True, I heard the same stories every week! But I didn’t mind. Her face lit up with the telling.

Then she suffered a set-back. They moved her to the “Memory Care” unit. Her disorientation and confusion was dreadful. Angry, frightened and defiant, she repeatedly trashed her room, fought, and tried to run away. The only thing that calmed her was talking about her childhood—except she couldn’t remember it.

“I do not know who I am! I don’t know who my mother is—or if I even had a mother….” Her voice trailed as she sank into her armchair, defeated, lost.

I took her hands in mind, partly to help her stay where she was. “Minnie, you had a wonderful mother! She was from Africa and your father from England. They had 12 children and….”

“Twelve children!” she exclaimed. “That is crazy!… But wait…” Using her fingers to count them off, she named her three oldest siblings. The memory of their names brought a flood of other memories. Her anxiety level dropped to zero. For this little while, my old friend was back, laughing, telling her stories.

I clued her caregivers on how they might be able to reach her. As I write, “Minnie” is headed to 101 years of age. She is daily confused about her surroundings, but she is gracious, considerate, loves to talk of her childhood. I feel honored to carry the “book” of her memories in my mental “library.” It joins a large collection of other people’s stories—stories I have gathered and stored in the course of building friendships—stories precious to my own memory.

If you also are a walking library, you understand the gift that you are and the gifts you’ve been given.

Text: “Adonai ELOHIM has given me the ability to speak as a man well taught, so that I, with my words, know how to sustain the weary. Each morning he awakens my ear to hear like those who are taught” (Isaiah 50:4, CJB).

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About Lois Pecce

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