Ben walked grumpily through the doors as they slid open. The place smelled of old people and why shouldn’t it. It was after all a senior living facility. Oddly it was named “Sunshine Home for Seniors”. Who the hell names a place Sunshine for people that are about to drop dead he thought. Maybe they should call it “Sunset Home”. Yep! Apt.
Janice behind the front desk looked up and saw Ben shuffling towards her. His hair was this dirty blond, disheveled like he had just rolled out of bed and decided he was going to go out into the world looking like that. His clothes weren’t too much better. His jeans were in need of a wash and hung low on his waist, held there by his belt. She thought she saw something of a superhero tee underneath his rumpled hoodie. His hoodie read “Twenty One Pilots”. Must be some teen boy band Janice thought, giving the kid a disapproving once over. I wonder why they send these kids here for community service. The seniors feel pretty neglected already by their family. They don’t need someone in their face all day to remind them of it.
“Hi-i-i. My name is Ben. I’m here for my 50 hours of community service? I’m supposed to help some old person?” His voice was singsong and sounded exactly like the situation, coerced and disinterested. Janice tried on her best I’m-going-to-be-patient-with-you smile as she handed him a form to fill out. “Have you done this before, Ben?” she asked, knowing fully well what his response would be. “Naww. Never. Dude…I mean Ma’am, I wasn’t even drunk. I don’t see why they gave me 50 hours for speeding. Not to mention I have no old people experience. I mean, like, so my grandparents died when I was still a kid, so you see, I don’t know what they need and all. And I have a weak stomach. So don’t put me on any sponge bath or poop duty ok?” he said as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Why couldn’t they have given him some assignment walking dogs or something. Old people were boring…and smelly.
Janice sighed. It’s always the same excuse. Weak stomachs, intense gag reflexes, don’t like old people. She said as calmly as she could “Well, the staff takes care of most of that work. You may be needed to help carry or support an old person but even that is rare. Most of your duties will involve keeping them company, reading to them, talking to them, maybe feeding the ones that are too weak to eat by themselves. Can you do that?” Ben looked pensive. “Do these old people throw up a lot?” “Or stinky fart?” he asked suddenly breaking into a grin. Janice laughed. Maybe there was hope for this kid. At least he had a sense of humor.
Janice rounded the corner of the front desk “Let me give you a tour of the facility. Show you the ropes and then we can figure out who you can companion.” Ben nodded and followed Janice. 20 minutes later, he had seen the grounds where he would have to walk/wheel his companion around, the common eating area, the activities area, the clinic and most of all, way more old people than he had in his entire life. He was actually saddened by this place. It looked well run and the people looked clean and cared for but there was a look of desolation on their faces. Like they had given up on life or maybe life had given up on them? He wasn’t too sure. The really old ones looked like they were just waiting for their time to come. He silently hoped he would conk off long before he hit this stage.
He asked Janice softly “Do they get a lot of visitors?” They were standing
in the cafeteria. Janice looked around the room before she responded “Some
of them do. Some of them don’t. Some have dementia, Alzheimer’s, or just
are too old so they might not recognize or appreciate their visitors. But
there are some in here who have family come by every weekend, sometimes
during the week. Some even get whisked off to events. You’ll see all kinds
of people here. At some point in their lives, they were all healthy and
strong people living full lives. Some of them haven’t come to terms with
the fact that they are aging now. You’ll see plenty in your 50 hours here.
Alright Ben, let’s go see who we can pair you up with.”
Back at the front desk, Janice scrolled through the list of residents. Her
eyes fell on Mr Finch’s name. Darren Finch had entered the facility 4 years
ago of his own volition. Back then his long time friend, Ed had been with
Sunrise for a couple of years. Darren had lost his wife to cancer and was
grieving. They had no kids and as whimsical as he was, Ed was his only
close friend. So he started visiting Ed 3-4 times a week. Soon he figured
out that it was easier to just move in here with him so they could be
close. 2 years into moving in, Ed suddenly contracted pneumonia and never
recovered. Darren unfortunately was the one who found him the next morning,
he had passed away in his sleep. That was the last straw. Darren withdrew
from the world. He grew snappy, hating the staff, hating his nurse on duty,
hating the birds for singing in the trees. He hardly spoke to anyone. He
spent hours playing chess for both sides, sitting on the park bench and eating way more pudding than he should. The staff put up with him for the most part but they had started referring to him as Grinch Finch. Janice gave it some thought. Ben was an odd ball too. He might just get along with Mr Finch. He had always looked sad to her, like he wanted someone to talk to but never knew how to.
She walk Ben to room 256. It was an airy room with a lot of light, sky blue curtains and a full bed with a floral printed bedsheet and matching comforter. It looked clean and the bed was made. On the nightstand was a stack of books, a writing pad and a few pens. “Mr Finch, are you in here?” Janice called out. The bathroom door opened and from it emerged an older, slightly bent man. He was wiping his hands on a towel. He gave Ben a once over. “Is this my new chaperon? Look! If I need to shower everyday, then so does he and today you don’t look it, boy!” Ben looked genuinely embarrassed as he ran his fingers through his hair trying in vain to look ‘cleaner’. Finch chuckled. “I’m headed on my walk. Has he been educated?” he asked Janice pointedly. He almost said the word ‘educated’ like he knew what he would be dealing with. Janice nodded and gave him the ‘behave yourself now’ look. “OK, I hope you can walk long distances, boy because we will be walking a lot.” With that he set off towards the door. “Sir, the name is Ben” Ben said almost in a whisper that went unheard. Janice smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “He just has a tough exterior, he’s not a bad guy.” she said, knowing fully well that Ben might probably be asking for someone else in a week’s time. Mr Finch had a way with pushing buttons people didn’t know they had!
3 weeks later, Janice was at the front desk when she saw Ben walk in the door again. Except this time, she almost didn’t recognize him. He was dressed in clean jeans and a bright yellow tee, he looked like he’d had a haircut and his hair was neatly brushed back and he had a smile on his face. He was whistling some tune as he walked in carrying an armload of books. He grinned at Janice and said “Mr Finch reads books by the ton. This is my third run to the library in 2 weeks!” Without breaking stride, he walked off in the direction of the stairs, still humming his tune. Janice turned to Mark who was standing by her and raised her eyebrows in a ‘what just happened?’ look. Mark said, “Mr Finch might just have found a new friend. The two of them have been getting along like a house on fire!”
That was a good way to describe what Darren Finch and Ben had developed. Mr Finch had instantly taken to this kid. He oddly reminded him of himself when he was that age, several decades ago. Maggie, his wife had been his guiding light then. She had seen in him something most everyone missed and under her unconditional love, Darren grew to be the man he was. He figured it was time for him to pay it forward. Ben was a sharp kid, just lost. In the 2 weeks they’d been together, Mr Finch had tried to learn as much as he could about the kid and tried to teach him new things patiently, like Maggie had. He didn’t have Maggie’s patience but Ben didn’t seem to mind the occasional reprimand or frustrated sigh. He was teaching Ben how to play chess, how to play the ukelele and then running him ragged with all the library runs. He’d also made Ben sneak in Chinese food from this place he and Maggie ate at all the time when he lived on the outside. Seeing the guilty look on Ben’s face when he pulled the container out of his hoodie made Mr Finch wonder how he even got past the front desk with the contraband.
On Christmas, long after Ben’s 50 hours of community service was done and he still kept coming to ‘chill with Mr Finch’ as he called it, Ben walked into Sunshine with a huge box under his arm. Mr Finch was in his room reading when Ben traipsed in and put the box on the bed. “Open it!” he said excitedly. “Ben, I didn’t get you anything. We can’t do presents if I can’t get you anything.” “You owe me 6 chocolate puddings from losing chess to me. How about you pay those first and then we can talk presents. Now open it, will you!” he said, sounding almost whiny. Mr Finch grinned. Ben had come a long way since that first day in this room. He was more confident, smiled more and talk a lot….way more than Mr Finch cared for, but he figured the boy had no one else to talk to, so he allowed it.
He started to open the wrapping carefully. “Oh, just rip it already” Ben yelped. “OK, OK. Jeez kid. You are more excited than I am!” Mr Finch said. Mr Finch ripped the wrapping, wincing a little at the sound. Inside was a brown box but no labels on it to hint about the contents. It was neither too heavy nor too light. “Not books, hmm” Mr Finch thought. He slowly opened the lid. Inside it was a comforter. “What the hell. Why do I need a comforter?” he thought. “Ooopen it!” Ben said getting frustrated with the slow pace. Sighing, Mr Finch stood up and threw open the comforter so it lay on top of his bed. What he saw stopped him, then he teared up for the first time in a long time. He turned slowly towards Ben who now looked not so sure. “Shit, you don’t like it. I-I-I’m sorry, you don’t have to accept it, Mr Finch. I don’t know why I thought this would be a good gift.” Mr Finch took one step towards Ben and crushed him into a bear hug. “My son, what you’ve given me today, you’ve touched my heart! Puddings won’t make up for this, kid.” He looked back at his bed. It was a green comforter, Maggie’s favorite color and on it was screen-printed picture of him and Maggie on their wedding day. She looked radiant in her white gown. He was holding her hands as he looked into her eyes fondly, ready to spend the rest of his life with his perfect soulmate.” An identical picture rested in a frame on the night stand.