Sometimes we learn the most important lessons from stuff that was right in front of us the whole time. That’s how it was for me today when we moved my friend Mike out of Ruby Plaza and into the Home for Aging Parents. Okay — none of these names, nor any of the other names I’ll be mentioning, are real. That’s so I can respect everyone’s privacy. But the friendship is real, and so is what I learned.
After we got Mike moved, I was sitting at a table in the early afternoon sun, on the garden patio at the Home, eating lunch with Barbara and Tom. They live in Arizona. Barbara is Mike’s sister. When they heard last week about his rapid decline, they hopped on a plane and came out to San Francisco to get him moved.
I came today, tearing away a few hours from an impossibly busy work schedule, to help them move his stuff and hang out a bit with Mike. He stared in amazement at the small army of people who materialized at the Plaza to pack his stuff and carry it out of the room, and finally, when only he was left, to lift him onto the gurney and roll him out the door. Then at the Home another small army showed up to reverse the process and get him moved in.
Mike lay rigid on the bed staring up at the ceiling while people swarmed around him, unpacking and hanging up clothes, labeling each of his possessions and listing it on the Resident Inventory List, checking out his dietary requirements, bringing in his meds, filling out endless forms.
I leaned over him and spoke softly close to his ear. “At least here it looks like you’ll get the kind of care you need now.”
He didn’t look away from the ceiling. “Care I need now … ” he repeated. “I’m not so sure I like this.”
Out on the patio, Barbara and Tom and I sat with our lunch, reflecting on the dramatic and unexpected course of events that had brought Mike to this point. There was the day about seven months ago, when his friend Lisa came to his apartment to help him get to a routine doctors appointment, and found him lying motionless, nearly dead, on the floor. And the long series of twists and turns, adventures and misadventures, which finally landed him here in this skilled nursing facility.
Mike is 70. He spent most of his years living alone in the same San Francisco apartment. His life has been simple and modest. But his kindness and wisdom have earned him many friends, myself included, who care about him, and have been visiting him regularly since he became incapacitated. And he’s also been wise with money, building up a significant retirement investment portfolio.
Barbara and Tom told me how time consuming it’s been for them these past six months, dealing with all of his possessions and all the financial, legal and business issues. Most challenging of all has been navigating the twisted tangle of American health care where everyone involved — doctor, specialist, nursing staff, physical therapist, social worker, administrative staff, Medicare, insurance representatives — everyone seems disconnected from, and at odds with, everyone else.
Mike is unfortunate to have a debilitating and irreversible illness. It’s a terrible situation. But he’s fortunate in two ways. First, he can afford the care he needs. And second, he has the people around him.
His sister and brother-in-law have devoted countless hours to managing his situation from where they live in Arizona. And there are 50+ friends on Mike’s visitors list, seeing him regularly, monitoring his care, making sure he’s treated well by the staff, making sure that Barbara and Tom are always up to date on how he’s doing — and best of all, making sure that his mind and heart stay engaged.
We live at a time of great uncertainty about the future of health care in America. Will the Affordable Care Act survive the next election? Even if it does, will there be enough to provide the care that we’ll all need when we get older – including the majority of Americans who don’t have the financial resources that Mike does? And if not, what happens?
This brings me back to where I started: what I learned today. The family and friends who’ve come together to support Mike – in the middle of a shocking, confusing, and scary situation – have made a huge difference, not only to him, but also to each other. And regardless of Mike’s financial situation, we all would have come together anyway.
At this point in my life, I’ve been preparing to start my next project: One World Lights. I hope to bring together a global network of local leaders which will encourage people in all kinds of places – in a world of so much uncertainty, where so much seems outside of our control – to come together in their own communities to make a difference for each other.
What I learned today is that, right here among my own friends, without my having given it much thought, this vision, which I believe holds an important key to a positive future for our planet, is already happening.
Maybe it’s already happening among you and your friends too.
In the Torah, after a visionary dream, Jacob wakes up and says, “Surely God is in this place and I, I didn’t know.” (Genesis 28:16)
That’s how I feel today. It’s a good feeling.