At eighteen, we weren’t overly aware of the social norms for hospital visits. If we had possessed such awareness, we probably would not have gone there. At the time, it seemed like a pretty normal thing to do. I’d like to think it was my idea, but Kelly was the one with a heart for people. Personally, I had developed a pretty good heart for me.
Kelly & I often engaged in those late night discussions that flow from idealism and a general lack of responsibilities. In the midst of one such discussion in her living room about life, love and loneliness, she suddenly fell silent. Following her gaze, I realized she was staring out the window at the large brightly lit hospital on the hill.
“How many people up there don’t have anybody?”
Off the wall comments were certainly not foreign to Kelly, but this one really seemed like it came out of nowhere. We were, after all, talking about ourselves, not people we didn’t know in a hospital I had never been to.
“Everybody has someone.” I replied with confidence not borne of experience.
She looked at me like I was one brick shy of a load, which was probably a pretty accurate assessment. She kept looking at me, but her mind was on something else.
“Let’s find out.”
I sensed from her tone that she had just made a decision. Her smile made me uncomfortable, but when Kelly made a decision to do something, it was generally fruitless to try to dissuade her. It would be more efficient to talk a bull out of charging.
The next afternoon, we stepped off the elevator onto the sixth floor of Omaha Methodist Hospital. I don’t know why she picked six. As a teenage male, I understood Kelly about as well as I understood anyone of her gender.
She marched right up to the nurses’ station and announced that we were there to visit people who were lonely. I figured this was where security would get involved but the nurses just smiled. Kelly asked if there were any patients who never had any visitors. Both nurses said the name in unison.
Room 6142 was a large room. It had a great view. You could see Kelly’s house from there. And George had it all to himself. When we timidly poked our heads through the door, he regarded us with suspicion. It made me feel like I was selling something. He was an elderly man with a slight frame. I didn’t know his age, but when you’re eighteen, anyone over fifty is elderly.
We told him we were visiting people in the hospital and wondered if he had time to talk. That made him laugh.
“I ain’t goin nowhere.”
“At least not today.”
As nervous as I was about the whole thing, George made it easy. He obviously had been storing up some tales of adventure. He told us of life, love and loss. He told us how he started off as a Bible salesman in Oklahoma. He explained how he ended up a pig farmer in Iowa. When he wove a tale of meeting the love of his life, to whom he was married for forty three years, Kelly cried. His wife died a few years earlier and they never had any children. The farm was long gone and he had spent the last couple of years in a small apartment. Despite the loneliness, his humor was razor sharp. Sometimes he had us laughing so hard, I could hardly breathe. It seemed he hadn’t laughed in a long time.
At times, I could tell George was in pain, especially when he laughed, even though he tried to hide it. I didn’t ask him what was wrong, because that might not be proper hospital etiquette. After two hours, he looked exhausted so we decided to go.
“Will you come back tomorrow?” he said tentatively.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Kelly replied.
Tuesday afternoon was even more fun than the day before. George had obviously been perfecting his stories and they came fast and furious. I was surprised how much I enjoyed his company. Realizing that three hours had sped by, we decided to call it a day. He looked pale.
“See you on Thursday,” I called over my shoulder as we headed for the door.
“I hope so,” he replied softly.
I assumed that he hoped we would actually come back. I realize now that he knew something we didn’t.
Thursday, as we stepped off the elevator, three nurses all gave us the same look. I knew immediately that George was gone.
I honestly believe we made a difference in George’s final days. I know he made a difference in us.
Two afternoons out of my life.
That year I actually experienced 365 afternoons. Since then I have experienced thousands, but it only took two to change my life.
Nearly thirty years after George died, I have become a pastor. I can see how those two days helped lay the groundwork for the passion I have for the sick, the lost and the lonely. Hospitals don’t bother me because I know they are full of people. Human beings who need another human to talk with them, laugh with them and pray with them.
This is George’s legacy.