The Power of Conversation

By: Wayne Stellmach, IMSA and Wilbert Funeral Services

Thinking the other day about the merits of Having the Talk of a Lifetime with loved ones, I suddenly had a flashback to 1974. I was in my final year of undergraduate studies at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL and working various jobs to put myself through college. One of those jobs was as an orderly at the county nursing home, a job that certainly had its share of challenges but paid a bit more than my other gig flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Oh, I also played in a rock band in the local clubs, but as much as I loved performing, I quite unexpectedly experienced deeper rewards working in the nursing home…and thinking back now, it was because of the very same dynamics and power of Having the Talk.

As you might expect, there was a lot of mundane work and heavy lifting involved as an orderly in a nursing home. But there were also opportunities to talk with those for whom I was caring. I remember Virginia, a spunky 90+ year old who worked a farm with her husband and spoke of the love she had for the animals, the land, and fun-filled evenings playing Euchre with family and friends. She was still a spitfire with a mischievous sense of humor and I could envision how she must have been the life of the party. She was now alone in the world but she wasn’t one for self-pity and loved to talk about politics and hear about my world outside her four walls.

I remember Matt who couldn’t have been more than 40, largely bedridden due to advancing muscular dystrophy but having a loving mom who would visit often and make sure his small refrigerator was stocked with beer. Every evening, Matt was allowed one beer and when I was on duty, I was asked to sit with him, pop open his beer and assist him with his daily indulgence and brief escape into normalcy. At first uncomfortable, I came to anticipate those times. In halting style, Matt would talk about his earlier life as an accountant that played to his obsession with order…before disorder threw his life upside-down, but he never said that. Instead, he would talk about the Chicago Cubs and Chicago Bears, and we’d talk music and bands. We were both avid Beatles fans…his favorite song was Yesterday.

And I remember Harold, probably in his early 60s, who also required substantial help getting into and out of bed, bathing and eating. Most others thought Harold was somewhat cranky and incommunicative, but he talked to me. He had been a worker at the local Del Monte canning operation until ALS wreaked its havoc on him. He worked nights and still tended to prefer evenings, loving to read books, mostly fiction but also, he loved some of the classics such as Moby Dick and Great Expectations. We talked about murder mysteries and Captain Ahab. His family didn’t come visit very often, but he spoke with pride about his son who was building a decent life in the financial services industry.

My job never allowed me a lot of time for these conversations, but they were cumulative over the course of the 9 months that I worked at the nursing home. I slowly saw the mosaic of these peoples’ lives through snippets of conversations. Only snippets, but precious talks to them and in retrospect to me. We connected. I learned what was important to them. I learned that living graciously with what gifts you had, despite hardships, was preferable to complaining. I saw how much they wished they could talk some more…me too. And when I had to say my goodbyes before I graduated and left that little part-time job, I was stunned to see, of all people, the hard-nosed Harold cry.

All because we talked. Take the time to talk to your loved ones. Have the Talk of a Lifetime.