Sister Jane Gibson loves being pushed around the Providence Health Care Center Courtyard. In truth, Sister Jane loves most things. In her eyes, every hydrangea, every ray of sunshine, every vine, and every leaf is beautiful. In her eyes, I am beautiful. I know because she told me so multiple times.
I first volunteered with Providence Teen Ministry at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods in the Providence Health Care Center when I was in middle school, and I found it difficult. The health care residents are often weak and sometimes dying. A majority are wheelchair bound, many are in pain. Initially, I didn’t know how to talk to residents, so I worried I would disappoint them and embarrass myself. I was so stuck in my anxieties that I was not fully present. As I returned each month, I grew more comfortable with my role as a volunteer. And my relationship with residents grew. I particularly cherished spending time with Sister Jane, because every word out of her mouth was kind. She complimented volunteers’ hair, their kindness, and even, in one memorable case, their sweat pants.
One day, I pushed Sister Jane in a wheelchair around the Providence Health Care courtyard. We joined a group of volunteers and health care residents chatting in the sun. I sat next to Sister Jane, and as we listened to the discussion, she rubbed my shoulders. The director of the volunteer program asked residents about their families and their lives, but when the questions reached Sister Jane, she was unable to recall how many siblings she had. All she remembered, she insisted, was that her family was very loving. Sister Jane has memory loss. And even while her memory deteriorates, she brightens my day. What she lacks in solid details she replaces with raw sentiment. Her kindness awes, inspires and uplifts me.
Interacting with Sister Jane demonstrates that how we treat each other matters. When I first volunteered, I felt out of place. Sister Jane’s and the other sisters’ kindness made me feel welcomed. It encouraged me to return. And as I grew more comfortable, it inspired me to welcome new volunteers because I realized how much I myself valued feeling welcomed. After volunteering, I always returned home feeling appreciated and loved. I want other volunteers to feel that way too.
The present moment
I am at times so caught up in my thoughts that I disconnect from other people’s lives. Sister Jane reminded me that being kind in the present matters deeply. Whatever our thoughts, whatever our memories, whatever our plans, it is only in the now that we can demonstrate our love for each other. When we feel loved, we feel safe enough to share our love with others. Thus, love cycles from person to person. By looking past myself to enact positive change in the present, I am better able to participate in this community of love.
I’ve heard that people with dementia have a prominent feeling of fear. Because Sister Jane is so positive even as she is unsure of where she is and what she is doing, her kindness must be innate. It trumps her fear and it triumphs over her confusion so that her beautiful humanity remains even as her memory dwindles. Her niceness has no strings attached; it’s just part of her. I am somebody who looks for deeper meanings and embraces complicated answers. Still, I find Sister Jane’s simple kindness deeply touching. She loves me with no knowledge of who I am and no expectations of who I will become. Her love in the moment is so complete that anyone who encounters her feels it.
Even though I do not know the fine details of my future, Sister Jane helped me realize that no matter what career I pursue, I will be more fulfilled if I know my life enriches the lives of others. I hope that I may one day find myself creating a fraction of the joy Sister Jane creates.
Do you know a teen who might benefit from giving their time with our elder sisters and health care residents? Learn more about upcoming volunteer opportunities for 12-18 year olds at TeenVolunteer.SistersofProvidence.org.