His name was Mr. Woods. The synchronicity and poetry of his name didn’t dawn on me until some months later. He was one of the first residents I served as a chaplain at a skilled nursing facility and one of the inspirations for this project. I had spent some time in nursing homes before, mostly with my father-in-law as he progressed through Parkinson’s. The SNFs almost always were laid out and inhabited in hospital fashion: three to a room divided by a hanging cloth, maybe sitting in the hall, usually laying in bed. Almost never outside. I tried to be okay with this, honoring the dignity of the people who had no choice but to call this home. But I found that I was suffocating for fresh air, for the vitality of living things, flora and fauna.
In the fall I went room by room and offered the residents a choice from a basket holding fallen colored leaves. “Remember this smell of fresh raked leaves?” They’d hold the leaf in their hand, still so vibrant and alive and real… so different from the faux wood laminate bedside table, the cold silver metal and blue wheelchair, the pink plastic water jug. In the Spring I circled around again with fresh moist blooms from an abundant plum tree. Mostly though, I wanted to get people OUTSIDE. Take them in their wheelchairs, their gurneys even and get outside that lobby door. It had to be refreshing, maybe even healing. I was operating from a driving instinct, not from anything I read or knew about the healing potential of being outside.
Mr. Woods was a slender man, a tailor by lie-long trade whose hand would mimic holding a needle as he weaved stitches in mid-air while happily in a deep sleep. One October day I saw him seated in the lobby on the bench seat of his walker. I squatted down to get to eye-level and we chatted for a few. Then I went ahead and just asked him, “Would you like to go outside for a little walk? Not far… just to get some fresh air?” He said that he had not been outside since he had arrived there – maybe for two months at that point. He wasn’t very responsive, but I could tell it was possibly intriguing to him. Before he could waffle and say no, I told him to think about it for a bit while I did my rounds. When I came back he was still sitting there. I was actually surprised. When I leaned over and asked him again, he nodded a quick little yes that was not hesitant. I went to his room and got his coat and then we just got up and pushed his walker out the lobby door.
The breeze was bracing, the air so crisp, the fall leaves were changing, the water on the harbor was glistening in that late afternoon autumn sunlight breaking through the trees. I watched him as he took it in, as the air struck his face, how he tilted into it and smiled and glistened too. “Oh this is nice. This feels good,” he said in that low quiet voice of his. We just took our time and went only to the edge of the asphalt driveway where he sat finally and breathed the fresh air pouring at him. We didn’t talk much.The trees and the leaves and the sun and the breeze did all the talking. After awhile we got up and slowly made our way back across the parking lot and then turned around and sat by the front door for a few more minutes. I suggested that maybe he could step outside for a few minutes every couple of days, even just to stand right outside the door. He never did again before he died a month later.
His roommate reported that he often talked about that walk. After he had died I talked about it with my supervisor. I felt myself well up with tears. She said I hadn’t let go of him yet. I nodded, but I don’t think that was it, really. I think the tears were about the preciousness and beauty of that moment shared with him and the longing for it to be that way for all of us. I wanted to make that possible, make it a normal daily activity that didn’t need jumping though hoops to get a special signed waiver in order to go out for a walk and smell whatever is blooming and feel the fresh air and be transformed by it. That passion is what drove me to get Mr. Woods back outside. It is what drove me to do this dreaming.