stomped into the staff room, her uniform plastered with someone's dinner.
"I don't know how you do it!" she fumed to Helen, the nurse supervising
the evening shift. Sheila slumped into a chair and looked morosely at her
crumpled lunch bag. "Mrs. Svoboda just threw her tray at me again,
and she's so agitated I don't know how I'll be able to clean her up before
bed. Why don't you have so much trouble with her?"
Helen smiled sympathetically. "I've had my share of rough nights with her, too. But I've been here longer and, of course, I knew her husband." "Yeah, Troy. I've heard about him. It's about the only word I can understand when she gets going."
Helen looked quietly at the young nursing student. How could she explain what she saw beneath the aging exteriors of the nursing home residents they cared for? Sheila was only here for the summer. Was that enough time to learn to love the unlovable?
"Sheila," she began hesitantly. "I know it's hard to work with people like Mrs. Svoboda. She's rude, uncooperative and packs a mean left hook." Sheila smiled ruefully. "But there's more to her than the dementia you see every day." Helen got up to pour herself another cup of coffee. "I'd like to tell you about when I first met the Svobodas."
"When Mrs. Svoboda was admitted she wasn't as bad as she is now, but she was still pretty spicy. She used to give me grief over the smallest things--her tea wasn't hot enough, her bed wasn't made up right. On her bad days she'd accuse us all of stealing her things. I had no patience with her, until one day her husband happened to be there during bath time. I was gearing up for the usual fight with her when he asked if he could help. 'Sure,' I said gratefully. Good thing the safety restraints were on because she began kicking and screaming.
"I began washing her quickly, anxious to get it over with, when Troy laid his hand on my arm. 'Give her a moment to get used to the water,' he asked. Then he began talking softly in Russian. After a few moments she became calm and seemed to listen to him. Very gently, he took the cloth and soap from me and washed each of her hands. Then slowly and carefully, he washed her arms and shoulders, working his way over the wrinkled, sallow skin. Each touch was a caress, each movement a promise, and I suddenly became aware that I was intruding on a rare moment of ntimacy. After a while, she closed her eyes and relaxed into the warm water. 'My beautiful Nadja,' the old man murmured. 'You are so beautiful'. To my surprise, Mrs. Svoboda opened her eyes and murmured back,'My beautiful Troy.' Even more astonishing, she had tears in her eyes!
"Mr Svoboda reclined the lift and released her hair into the water. The old woman sighed with pleasure as he stroked and lathered and rinsed. Then, he kissed her temple. 'All done, my beauty. Time to get out.'
"I had to stay with them, even though they didn't need me. But I'd caught a glimpse of the well-loved woman who hid deep within the ruin of old age. I'd never thought of that way before. I'd never even learned her first name."
Sheila was quiet as she stirred her yogurt without looking up. Helen took a deep breath and continued her story. "Mrs. Svoboda stayed calm that whole afternoon. Her husband helped me dress her and feed her lunch. She complained about the food and at one point knocked over her soup. Mr. Svoboda patiently cleaned it up and waited until her tantrum was over. Then he slowly fed her the rest of her meal and talked to her until she was ready to go to bed.
"I was concerned about that old man. He looked completely exhausted. I asked him why he insisted on doing so much by himself when we were paid to do it. He turned to me and said simply, 'Because I love her.' "'You don't understand,' he continued. 'We've been married for almost forty-nine years. When we started out, life on the farm was harder than you can imagine. The drought killed our crops, and there wasn't enough pasture for the cattle. Our children were small, and I didn't know how we were going to survive the winter. I felt so helpless, and it made me angry. I was very hard to live with that year. Nadja put up with my moods, and left me alone, but one night I blew up at the supper table. She'd made our favorite treat, rice pudding, and all I could think about was how much sugar and milk she'd used.'
"'Suddenly, I just couldn't take it. I picked up my bowl and threw it against the wall, and stormed out to the barn. I don't know how long I stayed there, but around sundown, Nadja came out to find me. "Troy", she said, "you are not alone in your troubles. I promised to stand by you through everything life brought our way. But if you won't let me, then you have to go." She had tears in her eyes, but her voice was firm. "You are not yourself right now, but when you are ready to be with us again, we are here." Then she kissed my cheek and walked back to the house.'
"'I stayed in the barn that night, and the next day I headed into town to look for a job. There was nothing, of course, but I keep looking. After about a week, I was ready to give up. I felt a complete failure, at farming, as a man. I started for home, not knowing if I'd be welcome, but I didn't have anywhere else to go. When she saw me coming down the lane, Nadja came out running, her apron strings flying. She threw her arms around me and I began to weep. I clung to her like a newborn baby. She just stroked my head and held me. Then we went in the house, as if nothing ever happened.'
"'If she could stay committed to me during my worst times, during the hardest time of our life, the least I can do is comfort her now. And remind her of the good times we had. We always smiled at each other when we ate rice pudding, and it's one of the few things she still remembers.'"
Helen was quiet. Suddenly Sheila pushed back her chair. "My break is over," she said, dabbing at the tears that rolled down her cheeks. "And I know an old lady who needs another dinner." She smiled at Helen. "If I ask them nicely, I'll bet the kitchen can rustle up a dish of rice pudding for her, too."
Roxanne Willems Snopek Copyright c 1999 by RWS
Chicken Soup for the Couple's Soul
A Special Note From The Author...How the story of Rice Pudding came to be....
"I've grown up hearing stories about old people from my mother, who worked for years as a nurse in long-term care homes. She helped me get my first job washing dishes on the weekends in the facility where she worked. Although I knew this was not my career of choice, I put myself through college working weekends in another nursing home. During this time I met a man named Mr. Svoboda. He spent most of his time in a wheelchair, but he was still strong enough to whack you in the head if you got on his bad side. For some reason, we got along fine though, and I grew to enjoy visiting with him when I had a spare moment.
It was during a lunch break one night when another staff member mentioned that Mr. Svoboda had been a lawyer, a prominent community leader. The comment was bracketed by laughter and sarcasm, as if to say "look at him now." I felt a pang of sadness for him, and his family, and it somehow changed how I saw these people, and especially this one man. Sure I helped him to the toilet, and cleaned him up after, but I began to think of him in a different light, to remember that in his mind, he was still a person of influence and responsibility.
I wanted to write a story that would illustrate what I began to see in Mr. Svoboda, that what we see is such a tiny part of who these people are. That's how The Rice Pudding Story was born."
I rarely see people with AD these days, but I've found similar qualities in my children - the inability to communicate, frustration, forgetfulness - and have found it helps so much for me to look past that and see who they are inside. I miss friendships with seniors sometimes, but I know it's only a matter of time until it is part of my life again.
Many thanks for sharing the background on this wonderful story, Roxanne. It's a beautiful tribute not only to Mr. Svoboda, but to every person ever afflicted with this disease!