For those of us who work in older adult services, we have the incredible privilege and gift of getting to know people in a way that is far different than others may know. We often have years of connection, conversation and shared experiences that allow us to develop relationships that are deep, meaningful and feel, truly, like family. And when those residents are no longer with us, we grieve and we remember, we swap stories and smiles and, often, wipe away some tears.
We carry the memories of these special individuals with us forever; their faces and their stories always live within us. Certainly that will be the case with my friend Corky, who left us last week. Corky moved in just about the time that I started my role as the CEO of the organization. We were “newbies” together and teased about the learning curve we were both on, as she adjusted to assisted living and me to a new job in a new city.
When we began to dream and talk about a mission to Israel with residents, she was excited. More than that, her son was excited to add her to the list, thrilled to help make her dream come true. Corky loved every minute of our mission, she reveled in all of the sites we visited and had tears in her eyes when we stood and prayed at the Western Wall. What I remember most, though, is the day that we visited the Dead Sea. We had been to the top of Masada in the morning and then headed to a Dead Sea resort to experience the unique buoyancy of that body of water. The resort gave us packets of mud to put on, enabling us to create our own “spa treatment” and rinse it off in the salty water. Every resident on our mission had a buddy, a member of the staff who was their roommate and travel pal. Corky and her buddy changed into their swimsuits and slathered themselves with mud from their hairlines to their feet. They came out to the sand, holding hands and giggling like schoolgirls and they went into the water together, enjoying every second of the experience.
We never did manage to get all of the mud out of Corky’s hair for the rest of the trip and she didn’t mind at all. In fact, for months afterward she would tell us about the mud and how it all was “stuck in her hair!”
My other favorite moment from that trip was sitting at dinner in Jerusalem, Saturday evening after Shabbat. We were at a restaurant, rather than the usual hotel dining room, and we were all at one long table, like a banquet for 25. The restaurant was serving us course after course of food and we were laughing and talking over salad and pasta and pizza. We were talking with the residents about the music that was playing, old swing music, and Corky was telling us about the dancing days of her youth. She told us about how much she loved to dance and how important it always was to go out dancing wearing matching panties. We were a little taken aback and asked her just what that meant. She told us that when the man lifted her high in the air and swung her around, you might catch a glimpse of those panties—and they had to match!
When we took our second mission, Corky, again, was one of the first on the list. She had more cognitive challenges then but her spirits were high and she was, once again, excited. This mission was a special one, we were doing a B’nai Mitzvah mission, offering residents and staff the opportunity to participate in a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony to be held at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Western Wall. Corky gamely learned her lines of Torah and worked with the rabbi to write the words that would comprise her section of the D’var Torah. The morning of the ceremony, she was dressed beautifully and I can still see the focus on her face as she took part in the service, an emotional service for all of us who had the great privilege of being there.
Corky shared funny stories with us about her children, she shared pieces of her life and herself. She was never less than pleasant, never less than positive and never less than polite. Disease may have robbed her of some of her memories but never her smile and never the twinkle in those bright blue eyes.
For me, the memory of Corky is how much she taught me. She was always able to laugh, with us and at herself. She radiated positive energy and seized every opportunity for adventure, wanting always to experience what life had to offer. She enveloped all of us in her warmth and caring. She adored her son, who was the absolute picture of devotion, and glowed with pride as a parent and a grandparent. Corky reminded us that it is possible to find joy in the big things and the small and that each of us can help spread that joy, creating a circle of light that warms and brightens all who enter it.