By: Brendan Karp, volunteer
April 16, 2018
Life’s a funny thing. We tend to have things take hold in our lives that have a dramatic impact, yet we never could have guessed it at the outset. That’s certainly the case for me looking back on the first time I set foot in the Little Sisters of the Poor’s St. Mary’s Home in Chicago.
Four years ago, I moved to Chicago; a new city and whole lot of unfamiliarity. Without many of the friends, nearby family, or physical elements of my Catholic faith I was accustomed to, I began to look for ways to fill these voids. At the same time, Pope Francis was quite outspoken about helping the least among us. I remember hearing him frequently talk about how important our elderly brothers and sisters are. That stuck with me, seeming like an opportunity to develop relationships with others and even somewhat of a family in a way. So, a quick Google search for “nursing home volunteering” brought up The Little Sisters of the Poor.
Three years later, I’ve built friendships and made memories that will last a lifetime. That’s part of what I believe makes volunteering so incredible – we each have our own takeaways from it. It takes many shapes and forms, each with its own unique impact. But I truly feel that serving the elderly is remarkably special, particularly as a young person. Why do I believe this? Because of how much I’ve learned from it and how much it continues to change my outlook on life every week. Here’s just a few of the lessons I’m grateful to be able to share that have had such a profound impact on me:
Take life day-by-day, because each day is a gift and you never know what the next one will bring. We’re all so busy thinking about and planning for the future, sometimes maybe a little too much (I’m sure guilty). But we never know what unexpected turns life will bring; whether it’s health, family, or economically. Even when these challenges come we’re forced with a choice to make the most out of it or surrender. I’m in awe of many of the residents at St. Mary’s Home that face some of the most overwhelming hardships. However, the common approach amongst all of them is simple: make today the best day yet then deal with tomorrow when it gets here.
A positive outlook is the secret to longevity and true happiness. Forget green tea and superfoods. The real key is much simpler: eternal optimists fare the best! Everyone carries their own burdens in their lives, and there’s plenty of reasons in the world (especially nowadays) to keep you down. But those that maintain a positive outlook and face each day with a relentless optimism seem to do far better than those who don’t. Life is all about your perspective, and only we are able to control that.
Everybody is somebody and you can’t judge a book by its cover. Sure, it’s cliché, but this couldn’t be more apparent at St. Mary’s Home. Everyone there has so many things they’ve done in their lives. People that have had money, lost it; had power, abandoned it. It brings things into perspective that in many ways the end of life is the ultimate equalizer. “Dust and to dust we shall return”. But what’s unique is that everyone has a unique perspective and set of stories to share. And sometimes you discover some of the most amazing things in the most unexpected people. Like Jim Glomski, who ran one of the original bicycle shops in Chicago. Or John Jackson, who bravely served our country in WWIII and tells stories of invading Okinawa. And if that’s not enough, if finding a hat and a pair of boots along with a note from James Dean sitting in a closet doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what does.
The importance of family cannot be taken for granted. Sadly, many of the residents of St. Mary’s home do not have family or nearby relatives to visit them. This is especially hard in older age, and has taught me to cherish mine and be grateful for the relationships that you do have. But also, that family can come in more than one form. We can choose to let others into our lives and share that same love with those we care about. I was fortunate enough to share that with Frank DeMore, who might as well be the Sicilian brother I never had, 87 years later.
Cherish those moments that matter the most. They’ll stick with you the rest of your life. Remember the good times and never forget the tougher ones that make you who you are. There’s an unmistakable twinkle in the eye of the residents when they recollect and describe some of the happiest moments in their lives. It’s as if they’ve gone back in time to relive them. Holding on tight to these memories is what keeps us going to realize that there are many more ahead, no matter what stage of life you’re at.
Live life with no regrets, because you can’t go back. One of the things I hear most in the advice I’ve received from residents are the things that they wish they would have tried or done differently. Living your life without any second-guesses can be the most peaceful thing when you look back on it. Hindsight is always 20/20, but if we give it our all in the present, at least we’ll know we haven’t left any of the stones unturned. So, go for it. Whether in relationships, work, travel, or making the leap in whatever way that may mean, take the chance. The uncertainty is almost certainly worse than any outcome could be.
You’re never too old to do what you want to do. When you get to be 92, there’s no such thing as “too short to ride the rides at the carnival”. Nope. And in life, unlike at the carnival, there’s no ticket taker stopping you. Any doubts that I previously held about the adage that “age is just a number”? Gone. Frank did it all… whether it was betting on horses and winning big, talking to the most beautiful girls, or belting Andrea Bocelli in the streets, he taught me that the only thing holding us back is ourselves.
Age and death is nothing to fear. This has been the most amazing thing for me and undoubtedly the greatest gift of all my experience has given me. It has taken one of the scariest parts of life and normalized it in a way. We all fear death, but much of that is because of the unknown. Going down that road with others in their passing and realizing that it’s all a part of a journey that doesn’t end with death, it’s actually just beginning, has changed my outlook and perspective on life forever.
Loving ain’t always easy, but you’re missing the point without it. Something that probably needs no explanation, but the favorite poem of my best friend, the late Frank DeMore, sums it up perfectly. “Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity.” – Henry Van Dyke.
The ironic thing about all of this… I’m supposed to be the one serving, yet I’m awestruck at how much more I’ve gotten out of it. I feel like I’m the one that’s indebted. I’ve learned more about myself, what’s important to me, and how to live life than I could’ve ever hoped to. And my time at St. Mary’s Home has given me new family, friends, strengthened my faith, and so many more intangibles beyond that.
But again, that’s what’s so special about this whole thing… it’s the opportunity for each one of us to develop our own lessons and takeaways. Young people today, we often claim we’re all about experiences. Whether it’s through traveling the world, our jobs, or our social lives, it’s valued above all else. And for good reason!
But I’m a firm believer that some of life’s truest experiences are not in the places you go or the things that you do, but rather in the people you meet. And I can’t think of a better way to understand all that life has to offer than getting to know others and sharing in their experiences. Experiences that span generations and decades we’ll never able to revisit in our own lives. Years of wisdom, triumphs, and hardships; lessons we can learn from and moments of joy we can share in. It’s just up to us to go seek them out.
“And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:40
Written with the late Frank DeMore in mind. A best friend who taught me how to laugh and love more than I ever thought possible. “Ay Siciliano!”