Lord, I want to be a blessing this week, I prayed as I followed my youth group into the nursing home. This was only one of the many service projects we’d do as part of our weeklong local mission’s trip, and that prayer had become my mantra. I wanted to serve Jesus, but I also wanted to bless others. How? Not too sure. Guess I’d wing it and see what happened, but I was also nervous about our visit today; wasn’t sure how it would turn out. The last time I’d visited with my mom, I had run out of things to say, and no one was talking back. Talk about awkward.
My eyes swept across the large room, taking in the sight of all the old folks grouped at various tables. All of them were in wheelchairs, but not everyone noticed the group of twelve that had suddenly invaded their space. Probably because they were too busy eyeing the cake sitting on a nearby table, waiting to be served, I thought.
A woman in bright green scrubs greeted us with a hello and waved us all into the room, out of the doorway. “Hello! Thank you for coming. As you can see we have some cake…would some of you like to help me hand this out to the residents?”
Most of the group migrated over to the cake table, but I stayed put. Too many cooks spoiled the broth—or in this case, cake. My friend Claire must have had the same idea. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, trying to decide what to do. Just as I was about to approach a table and try to start a conversation, another smiley worker approached Claire and I.
“Would you two like to make bracelets to hand out to the residents?” she asked. She led us over to a table in the corner and picked up a white slap bracelet. “There’s stickers you can decorate them with, and then you can go around and ask if anyone would like one.”
This was perfect! Handing out the bracelets would give me an “in”—a way to break the ice and get conversation rolling. Claire and I busied ourselves decorating the white slap bracelets with a variety of stickers. After I’d made seven of them, I gathered them up and walked to the table closest to me.
I greeted the four women seated at a table. “Hello! Would you like a bracelet?”
The lady closest to me leaned forward to get a better look at the bracelets I held. I fanned them out more so she could see them. “I don’t have my checkbook with me,” she said. “I don’t have any money for you.”
“Oh! No, no, they’re not for sale,” I said with a chuckle. “You can have one if you want one. For free.”
The woman broke out into a wide, gap-toothed smile. “Oh, you’re such a sweetie,” she said as she took a bracelet. She looked at it with uncertainty, her shoulder length white hair swishing as she cocked her head from side to side, trying to figure out how to put it on.
“Here, let me help you,” I offered, gently easing the bracelet from her fingers and showing her how to bend it around her wrist. “See? Looks great on you. The blue stickers even match your shirt,” I said, gesturing to her sky blue blouse.
I offered bracelets to the other three women, but only two of the ladies wanted one. We were silent for a few seconds before I realized I’d never introduced myself. “I’m Ella.” I learned that the lady in blue’s name was Sally, and the woman directly across from me was named Gertie. I never got the other two ladies’ names. They were more interested in the ice cream cake that my friend Dylan was delivering to everyone at the table. Seeing the cake gave me an idea though…
“Did you ever like to bake?” I had directed my question to Sally, but I looked around the table to make sure that the other women knew they were included in the conversation too.
Gertie gave a sharp nod of her head. “I baked all the time. I was always bakin’ for the cub scouts, boy scouts, girl scouts, brownies…always had somethin’ in my oven.”
“I used to make banana cake,” Sally said. She closed her eyes as if she were picturing the cake in her head. “Oh, that was so good. I loved me some banana cake.”
Interesting, I thought. I’d never heard of banana cake before, let alone eaten it, though that wasn’t likely to change, seeing how my mom absolutely hated bananas. “What kind of frosting do you put on banana cake?” I asked.
“Buttercream. Oh, I haven’t had it in years, but I did love it so.”
“Cool! I love baking too. One of my favorite things to make is soft pretzels. I think they’re really fun.” I pantomimed rolling out the pretzel dough with my hands and chuckled. “Oh, and I really like to bake a lemon sour cream pound cake. That’s yummy.”
Gertie leaned her forearms on the table. “Ella, right?” At my nod she continued. “What grade are you in?” She forked a bite of cake into her mouth.
“Oh, I graduated this year,” I said. My knees were beginning to get sore from kneeling on the floor but that was okay. I couldn’t believe how smooth the conversation was!
Gertie and Sally both looked at me in alarm, both of their cake forks poised in the air. “You can’t be graduated!” Gertie objected, and Sally nodded her agreement.
I laughed at their response. “Yup, sure am.”
Sally patted my arm. “Well, what do you want to do now dear?”
I shrugged my shoulders to indicate that I didn’t know. “I’m just doing whatever the Lord tells me to do. I really want to travel though. I haven’t seen the ocean or palm trees before.”
Sally broke out into a smile. “That’s a good idea. Do it while you’re young, dear.”
Was she saying follow the Lord while I was young or travel? I didn’t know but didn’t ask. Sally lifted her hand to my shoulder and patted it twice and said, “I like you, you’re interesting.”
In my surprise, I laughed. “That’s a good thing, right?” I said good-naturedly. Both ladies assured me that it was.
While Gertie finished up her cake, Sally told me about her travels. “I went to California once. It was a dream of mine to wade into the ocean, and I did.” She sighed at the memory. “And I always, I always wanted to pick an orange, right off the orange tree. So I did.”
“What’d you do?” Gertie asked.
“I said I always wanted to pick an orange, right off the tree.” She pretended to pick an orange as if the tree were right in front of her.
How cool. It was then I decided that picking an orange off an orange tree would be a dream of mine too. I’d never thought about that before, seeing as how the nearest orange tree was 2,000 miles away, but that was a neat idea.
We chatted for a few more minutes before conversation really started to lull and I decided that I should visit with some of the other residents before I left. “Well, I better move around a bit,” I said. “I really enjoyed chatting with you though. I hope you enjoy your cake, Sally.”
Sally took hold of my hand and squeezed. “Oh, I enjoyed you more than the cake.”
Aw, she was so sweet. I found another table that didn’t have a teen at it and settled in. “Hi! I’m Ella,” I said. The only lady who was interesting in talking was a woman whose name I learned was Marge.
“No one could ever pronounce Marjorie,” she explained, “so everyone just called me Marge.” She shrugged, and I couldn’t tell if she liked her shortened name or not.
We chatted for a while, her and I, and I learned that she loved to roller skate. When I asked her if she’d ever learned how to skate backwards she said that she tried, but she had always been too scared because she couldn’t see where she was going.
Marge knew how to play piano and the guitar. In school the music teacher always assigned Marge the instruments that no one else was interested in, so that’s what she learned. I asked if she’d ever learned how to play the banjo—that was one instrument I thought would be fun to play. Marge replied that that was one she could never quite get the hang of.
While I was talking to Marjorie, one of the youth group leaders, Gwen, caught my attention. I turned around and Gwen said, “Ella, sing?”
My breath caught in my chest as my eyes widened. I excused myself from Marjorie and joined our little group. I loved singing and even sang on the Praise Team at church, but…now? “By myself or with everyone?” I asked Gwen. I needed the clarification.
Gwen laughed and assured me that I would not be performing a solo performance…this time. The residents that she had been talking to had asked if we would sing for them, so we all shuffled into a corner of the room where everyone could see us.
“Who’s going to lead?” Paul, another YG leader, asked, his gaze traveling over the twelve of us. No one spoke up.
“Ella do you want to lead?” Gwen asked me. “Let’s start with Victory to Jesus first,” she suggested.
I glanced around to make sure that everyone was ready, took a deep breath, and began to sing the first line: “I heard an old, old story….” My friend Claire was the first one to join in, and then the rest of the youth group—though I noticed that some of the guys had strategically positioned themselves in the back and were not singing very much, if at all.
We finished the first verse and then the chorus—and the song stopped. Gwen leaned forward to whisper, “Does anyone know the other verses?”
“Oh! I do!” I whispered back.
We owned a couple of hymnals at home, and in my spare time I plunked around on the piano, trying to teach myself how to play using the songs out of the hymnals. It was a two-birds-with-one-stone scenario, because in addition to learning how to play the music, I also learned the words to many hymns, including Victory in Jesus. I sang the second verse, the rest of my group joined in on the chorus, and I soloed the third verse.
They clapped for us when we finished, and someone threw out a request for another song that most of us happened to know. The residents sang along and there was no mistaking the joy on their faces. One gentleman caught my eye, as he raised his obviously arthritic hand in the air and closed his eyes and sang. While his voice was strong, he was also singing off-key. Whether he knew it or not, it had no effect on him. It didn’t matter. He was singing to the Lord.
For the next forty-five minutes we sang all hymns that we knew the words to, until Gwen announced, “Thank you so much for letting us come and sing with you! We had a great time, but we have to leave now.”
They were disappointed, but they clapped for us all again with smiles on their faces. Those who belonged in my youth group began to file out.
While I waited to move I watched as the old man who had been belting out all songs held his hand out to each teen in our group. Claire took his hand and the old man gripped it, looked into her eyes and said, “I love ya.” Claire responded with a smile. He released Claire’s hand and reached for Dylan’s. “I love ya.” Dylan looked uncomfortable and unsure what to do, so he nodded and moved ahead. One by one the old man went down the line, shaking each person’s hand and saying those three words—“I love ya.”
Now it was my turn. Although I had watched him do the same thing to each of my friends, it still took me by surprise and caught me off guard. The old man took my hand in his wrinkled one, looked into my eyes with his blue ones, and said, “I love ya.”
“Oh…um…thanks.” I smiled my brightest as I moved through the room, saying goodbye to the residents as I passed.
One woman even commented on my singing voice, saying, “You have a beautiful voice. I can’t sing but I notice people who do, and yours stood out.”
It was probably one of the nicest compliments I’d ever received for my singing, but as I continued through the room and bid the residents adieu, my thoughts kept circling back to the old man in the wheelchair. He hadn’t known us, didn’t even know our names, yet he said he loved us. I went over it again in my head. I had a strange feeling in my heart…like I had missed out on something.
And I wondered…should I have told that old man I loved him, too?
Our group herded into the hallway to wait for the stragglers to join us before we could leave. The feeling in my heart didn’t go away. A nudge, a whisper…a regret. I should have told him I loved him.
But, I reasoned in my head, I don’t even know him! How can I tell him that I love him if I don’t even know him? It made sense, right?
I know him. The words echoed within me and in my spirit I knew that it was the Holy Spirit speaking to my heart. Ella, I know him, and I love him. Love him with My love.
I knew what I had to do. What I should have done ten minutes ago. But was it too late? What if he was gone? I peeked into the room and looked—and there he was.
I poked Gwen. “Um, Gwen? I’ll be right back.”
At her nod, I slipped into the dining area again, walking straight to the old man in the wheelchair with a grin. He seemed surprised to see me as I took his hand in mine.
“I—I wanted to say thanks again for having us,” I began. Then I looked him square in the eye so he would know that I meant it. “And I wanted to tell you that I love you.”
The deep swelling of emotion that flooded his eyes gripped my heart, and I was filled with such an unexplainable feeling, as I saw for myself how much those three little words had impacted his heart.
His eyes glistened with tears and he covered my hand with his other one, patting it. “Thank you,” he whispered in a raspy, emotion-filled voice.
That was it. That was all. He released my hand and I returned to the hallway. I had just received one of the sweet rewards of listening to the Holy Spirit. I had told the Lord I wanted to be a blessing to others this week, but I hadn’t expected to be blessed in return.
With My love.