I recently determined that something had to leave my schedule—every second seemed allocated to something or other—and so, with regret, have ceased to be a Laguna Honda volunteer.
During my months of going there, I always started by visiting two residents who were formerly guests of the soup kitchen. I never knew them there, but the soup kitchen’s director told me about them.
M. was usually lounging on his bed with the TV on, wearing a half-smile as he announced, “I’m getting out of here tomorrow!” In the beginning I would say “See you next week” when I left, but finally learned not to, as he always answered, “Won’t be here!” After that I said, “I’m lucky I caught you before you left.”
I liked to ask what he planned to do after he got out. The first time, he said, “Get drunk!”
“What are you going to do after that?”
“Sounds like it’s going to be a wonderful day!”
Sometimes his answer was, “Go see [the soup kitchen’s director]!” or “Have a cheeseburger!”
The last time I visited him, he said he was planning to get drunk and then “find a woman.”
“Where do you find a woman?”
“At the bar!”
“Oh, so you can do both things at the same place. What’s your favorite bar?”
“One that’s open!”
M. once pointed out a framed photo of himself with the Dalai Lama, from when the latter visited the soup kitchen several years ago. That was the only observable photograph in his room.
N., the other fellow, I think must have had a stroke, as he really can only make the sound “Uh.” Consequently, our visits usually weren’t very long. His dog is being cared for by another guest at the soup kitchen, but the couple of times I said, “So-and-so is taking good care of Annabel,” it didn’t seem to mean anything to him, though by then I had figured out he could understand me perfectly. At first I (stupidly) assumed that because I couldn’t understand what he was saying, he couldn’t understand what I was saying.
Once I realized the incomprehension didn’t go both ways, I started speaking to him more normally, and it seemed to me that, over the months, his speech improved a bit, or maybe I began to be able to tell one “Uh” from another. He was always lying in bed, staring at the TV, holding the nurse call device to his ear as if were a phone. There are a number of photos of friends, family members and animals in his room.
In my final weeks of volunteering, his face would light up when I arrived, and when I went into his room for my last visit, he put his hand on the cart next to his bed, but I couldn’t figure out what for. We had our usual type of exchange, with me talking and him saying “Uh.” However, his face was becoming increasingly animated and it really did seem as if we were somehow communicating better. I said, “It seems as if your speech is getting better. Does it seem that way to you?” and he nodded. After a short while, I got up to leave and he put his hand out on his cart and I realized he wanted me to take his hand. I took his hand and said, “How sweet! Thank you!” It really made my day. I will miss him and might go see both him and M. from time to time, though maybe neither will recognize me if I’m not there every week.