Just through the automatic doors, summer morning humidity clinging to my back and AC taking over my front, I see Jean. Her name’s not Jean, but it is in this story. She’s at the front desk that welcomes family, friends, and any one else with business at the nursing home where I work. She’s there in her floral blouse and purple pants, a staple look she’s cultivated over her time here. I see she’s laughing. And so is Robin, the concierge.
Jean spots me and the smile remains. I see her almost every day, and every time I see her she has a joke for me.
“Hi Jean, how are you?” I say in a sweetened version of my voice.
“Good enough to get outta here,” is her reply. Like always.
“Hey, did I tell you the joke?” Her eyes shine in the hopes she can make me laugh today. She loves making people laugh. It’s as normal for her as her floral blouse and purple pants.
“Let’s here it, Jean.” She has it memorized. I’ll do my best to retell it.
“A 6-year-old boy stands in church looking up at a row of plaques with names and flags, and the boy stands there staring and staring.” Her eyes are fixed on mine and mine on hers. I always make sure to look right back at her and give her my time. It’s just a few seconds.
“The priest walks up beside the little boy as he continues to stare. The boy eventually looks up to the priest and asks, ‘Father, what does this mean?'” She holds her stare and her cadence is steady. She continues: “The priest says, ‘These are to remember the men and women who died in the service.’ The boy lowers his gaze back to the plaques and in a hardly audible voice says, “Which service, the 8:30 or the 10:30?”
We laugh together and take the first steps of a short walk. She’s so happy she got me to laugh.
Now, the hallway splits. My office is to the left and she’s headed to the right. Normally I go straight to work, but I decide to hang out with Jean. She’s already made me smile, so why not? I tell her I found out she used to be a nurse, and she admits that it’s true. She tells me where she used to work and the types of things she used to do. It’s not heavily detailed, but enough to know she has great pride in it. I tell her about my mom, a former nurse, and my wife, a current nurse. We cover about 100 yards and it’s very pleasant.
Suddenly, she stops walking. She turns to me.
“Hey, did I tell you the joke?”
I can feel my face fall and I scramble to catch it. I was absolutely crushed and my eyes move down the hall. She had forgotten. She didn’t know that not two minutes ago she had told me the joke. But her eyes are bright in the hope of making me smile all over again.
I lower my gaze back to her eyes and in a hardly audible voice I say, “Let’s hear it, Jean.”
“A 6-year-old boy stands in church looking up at a row of plaques with names and flags…”
She tells the joke. I laugh and she smiles. And I go to work.
I knew before the day started that she has memory problems. She had told me that joke 20, 30 times already, but I never considered that her memory could be so short. It had always been a few days between hearing it, so I never witnessed it in front of me like this.
She’ll tell me the joke again soon and I’ll laugh at the punchline.
Because it’s not just a few seconds. It’s time. Precious time.