To read part one of Zelda's story, click HERE. To read part two, click HERE.
I knew that the best way to change my behavior toward Zelda was to follow the teachings of Christ. Most important in this case, to love my neighbor as myself.
If Zelda wasn't my neighbor, then who was? I put her on the bedpan. I wiped the woman's butt when she pooped. She farted in my face. That kind of relationship is about as close as one can come to neighborly. Maybe closer.
I needed to love my neighbor. I needed to love my Zelda.
And I didn't.
So I decided to pretend. I've always heard that if you don't feel like smiling, then smile anyway and before you know it, the smile will be natural.
The next time I put Zelda to bed, I kissed her forehead and said, "I love you."
"I love you, too," she answered.
I don't think Zelda was pretending. I think she had the love of Christ in her all along, and it was up to me to release it.
I moved on from "I love you," to smiling every time I went in Zelda's room. I moved her body as gently as possible. I didn't rush her care. I asked her questions about herself and learned she didn't hear well, which must have increased her feelings of isolation.
She never went to the dining room. She had meals in her room. She didn't attend sing-alongs or movies or bingo or any other gathering provided by the activity staff. I think she was afraid that if she left her room that no one would take her back and return her to the safe haven of her bed.
Her fear was realistic. I had come across other residents who waited for hours to be put in bed and receive a clean diaper.
When Christmas arrived, the nursing home held a party for the residents, complete with a Santa Claus.
But the party was on the first floor. Many of the third-floor residents were virtually immobile and couldn't attend. I found the director of the home and begged her to bring Santa to the third floor for a visit. She complied with my request.
When Santa arrived on the third floor, electricity crackled in the air. Santa had come upstairs just to see the residents. When he walked past Zelda's room, she saw him and called out to me, "Tell Santa to come in here."
I corralled Santa and led him to Zelda. She sang to him -- a song she had written years before. She remembered every word and every note. Santa and the nursing home director and I applauded, and Santa asked Zelda how she had written such a beautiful song.
"The Lord gave it to me," she answered, humbly.
Soon after, I was well into my 12-hour night shift when I had a Zelda breakthrough. I went to answer her call light. After she had used the bedpan, she gestured toward the recliner she no longer used and said, "Sit down, honey. You must be tired."
She was the only person who had ever made such an offer to me while I was on the job. Everyone wanted something; it was my job to provide it.
But Zelda didn't want a snack or fresh water in her pitcher.
She desired only my comfort.
I knew that our relationship had changed, that we had a relationship.
My love for Zelda burst forth from my heart at last. This love was no longer a pretense.
My joy in caring for Zelda increased seventy times seven.
One night another GNA and I were the only two nursing assistants on the floor for the entire night. It was a nightmare. We couldn't answer call lights. We could only go from one room to the next, changing diapers non-stop. When the day staff arrived at 7 a.m., the complaints began immediately:
The floor was a mess.
Everyone needed to be changed.
No one had been washed.
As soon as I saw the day supervisor, I said, "It's just been the two of us all night, and I don't want to hear one word about what a mess everything is."
I then went into Zelda's room for my last duty of my shift. As I changed her diaper, my tears began to fall. "Honey, you're worn out," she said. "You have to go home and get some rest."
"I will, Zelda. I promise."
I understood then that Zelda was fussy because along with her loneliness, she needed to be needed. In me, I think she saw someone who was imperfect, but trying. When she invited me to sit down and relax, when she told me to go home and rest, she was doing all she could to provide me with the comfort she had once given her children and the members of her husband's congregation. Through my efforts and my imperfections, I inadvertently gave Zelda a renewed purpose in life.
When she developed a bad cough from a cold, I sat with her and held her hand. She said she didn't feel well, which I reported to Evelyn, who rolled her eyes.
I returned to Zelda. Suddenly she had a coughing fit and her face turned blue.
I ran for Evelyn and told her what I'd seen, demanding that she check Zelda. This time, Evelyn listened to me. She hurried to Zelda's room to check her oxygen levels and listen to her breathing.
Soon the paramedics arrived to take Zelda to the hospital, where she stayed for several days because she had pneumonia.
I missed her while she was gone. I also knew I had saved her life by refusing to ignore her.
Zelda also gave me a purpose in my badly damaged life.
Soon after Zelda returned from the hospital, I arrived on the third floor one evening to find the Director of Nursing, Sherrie, looking as if she were ready to pull her hair out.
"Do you know how to put Zelda to bed?" she asked me.
"Sure," I said.
"Oh, thank God," Sherrie said. "She wants to go to bed, but she wouldn't let any of us do it because she said we wouldn't do it right."
Sherrie and I hurried to Zelda's room so I could teach my boss the correct procedure for putting Zelda to bed. As soon as I walked in the room, Zelda's face broke into a smile. I threw my arms around her and said, "I'm so happy to see you."
After Zelda was safely in bed, we left the room and Sherrie said, "You almost had me fooled there. I actually started to think you liked her."
I didn't know how to respond.
Later that night, Michael and I went together to care for Zelda. Before we left the room, as I always did now, I kissed her and told her I loved her.
In the hallway Michael said, "How can you say that? You can't love her."
This time, I knew how to answer.
"What kind of a Christian would I be if I didn't love Zelda?" I asked.
Rest in peace on the wings of angels, my Zelda, my friend, my neighbor.