You better be imperturbable if you get behind the pulpit in the Home. You better learn to keep chugging along even though half the audience is sawing wood. You can't expect undying attention, you'll never get it. When the audience verbalizes, you better have the sea legs of a stand-up comic, because there's no telling what you'll hear.
Yesterday's Thanksgiving speaker, a local pastor, is a veteran up front, and he's good. He knows better than to lecture, he keeps them singing, and he tries--don't we all?--to engage the residents with questions. His enthusiasm soars because he believes what he tells him is getting in--and he may well be right.
The Home we visit is a sunset place, where residents leave only on gurneys. A memory unit locks up on one side of the building. It's a wonderful place, a Home to be proud of. Nonetheless, every visitor knows--as do some of the residents--that it is, most certainly, the end of the line.
Yesterday, for Thanksgiving, the nurses emptied the rooms, so the chapel was overflowing. The residents were just about all there.
If you preach to that kind of congregation, what you deliver is something like a children's sermon: you ask only those questions you know they can answer--"Who came from heaven to earth?" Good questions have answers that come in a chorus of voices.
That's what the pastor was doing yesterday, but senility is a tougher nut to crack. When a dozen Alzheimer's patients compose a goodly chunk of the audience. . .good luck.
I'd never seen the woman whose wheelchair was front and center before. She didn't look particularly happy, and it soon became clear that her throttle wasn't performing to specs--she talked quite a bit, undirected commentary, you might say, not mumbling either. She seemed to be making commands. There were times I thought she was telling the pastor what he needed to know in language neither he or anyone else could exactly translate.
He was preaching about pilgrims. Thanksgiving was a truly American holiday, he said, born and reared in the U.S. A. He kept the screen up front full of pictures.
Right behind us, someone growled every thirty seconds or so. Not softly either. I don't know how else to describe the sound. Could have been a man or a woman. I don't know.
"Faith" is the word the preacher was fishing for, what he wanted to hear from the residents, the word he figured they could pull from their memories. "Faith" is what he wanted them to say, the lesson he wanted to teach.
"The pilgrims intended to get to Virginia," he told them, "but they got off course. When they came to land, it wasn't Virginia at all, but Cape Cod." Energetic, even athletic speaker--one of the best. "When they came off the Mayflower, they put down in a strange land." And then came the question. "And in that strange land, what did these good Christian people really need?"
The woman in front, the commander-in-chief, sounded out the only understandable thing she said during the service. "Indians," she said.
I giggled. I couldn't help it.
"Indians," she said, loud and clear.
There are, this Thanksgiving morning, a world of things for which we're thankful, so many that it gets awkward to create a list. This morning I'm still smiling, remembering that sober-faced woman's answer, and thankful for a world that surprises now and then, life that doesn't always stay on script.