In a Moment of Happiness

By Rose Ann Sinay

In a Moment of Happiness

The summer I turned sixteen, a friend invited me to join her group that visited hospitals in the area on a regular basis.

“We try to cheer up the patients up by talking to them, reading to them, playing checkers… whatever works,” Linda explained.

I enthusiastically agreed. It seemed a more grown up endeavor than the high school car washes and fund raisers. I accepted the invitation without asking about our assigned hospital. I found that out when my friend picked me up.

“The State Hospital?” I asked, scandalized at the thought. I knew the history and had heard all the stories. Originally named The State Hospital for the Insane, it was the setting for many scary stories told around local campfires.

The mental facility had housed the criminally insane and provided treatment for people that suffered severe mental illness. Eventually, the hospital came to include geriatric patients, tubercular patients and drug dependent individuals. As teenagers, it was the place that we all rubbernecked as we drove down the road, afraid of what we might see. The massive stone and brick buildings and park-like grounds were beautiful and eerie.

“What better place to spread love and understanding,” Linda said when I expressed my doubts. The organizer of our group, she was a bright and chatty free-spirit – a flower child without the flowers. Just being around her was like standing in a sunbeam. I wanted to project that same positive energy to the people I would meet.

There were six of us, three girls and three guys. We were ready to bravely step up and make a difference in the world. But we cowered as we walked into the stone building, half expecting someone to jump out at us.

We gathered in a large empty room; a few small tables and orange plastic chairs were scattered here and there. The nurse in charge gave us brief instructions and a bit of information about the patients who would participate in the program. We shouldn’t spend too much time with just one person. We could go outside in a fenced area if the patient wanted a cigarette. And most importantly, don’t argue with a patient. Other than that… just have fun.

Finally, a dozen men and women arrived. I heard a collective sigh of relief from my friends; the patients were not as we had imagined. They spanned the ages between our parents and grandparents. In fact, they looked like our parents and grandparents.

Joe, the first in the door, was a little Italian man who liked to talk and tell corny jokes. He also loved to sing love songs, but when he did, he began removing pieces of his clothing. While we were there, he never removed more than his shoes and socks before a staff member intervened. Needless to say, we stayed away from group sing-a-longs.

Dr. Smith was dressed in a shirt, tie and jacket. At first, we thought he worked at the hospital, but he shared with us that he had an insect phobia and admitted himself from time to time, when his thoughts became overwhelming. Thankfully, we never saw any sign of the condition. Dr. Smith became our unofficial guide to helping patients who were unhappy or having a bad day. Dr. Smith gave us information about mental health issues that we never knew existed.

Mary, a woman in her early forties, had an obsessive compulsive disorder, constantly counting and touching door knobs. One of our volunteers brought in Salsa records. He and Mary made up their own version of the cha-cha by adding extra dance steps and singing the numbers out loud. Mary loved it and counted out her steps as she danced out the door at the end of our visits.

The number of patients changed each week, but there were the “regulars” who made us feel like we were important to them… that they were happy to see us. And, of course, we all had our favorites.

Michael showed up halfway through our program. He was a big man in a wheel chair pushed by an aide. He didn’t seem to be aware of what was going on around him.

“Dementia,” Dr. Smith told me as I pulled up a chair and tried chatting with Michael. The only thing we knew about him was that he had been a military man and no one came to visit him. He sat with his eyes to the floor – at least when people were looking. Occasionally, I caught him listening intently to what was being said, engaged and interested.

I broke the first rule – I spent all my time with Michael, chattering about everything and nothing – sure that I could get him to talk. I told him all about me and my family. I brought pictures from home, pointing out every family member and friend, determined to get a reaction. He never said a word.

One day, something I said struck a chord. We made eye contact. He put his hand in his pants pocket and pulled out an old black and white photo. A younger, thinner, confident Michael stood next to a young man. His arm circled the boy and rested on his shoulder. They were both smiling. There was no question that they were father and son. Michael smiled. Three teeth were missing, but the smile was brilliant, nonetheless. For the rest of my visit he starred at the picture. For once, I had nothing to say. He was happy in that moment, and so was I.

The summer ended, the program was over, and we went back to school. We had all changed. A silly dance, a funny song, a shoe flying over head, a toothless smile – little moments of happiness that we would talk about around a campfire with fondness and empathy. Lessons learned from the most unlikely of sources.

About this writer

  • Rose Ann Sinay Rose Ann Sinay is a freelance writer typing away in sunny North Carolina. Her articles/stories have been published in The Carolinas Today, The Oddville Press and The Brunswick Beacon.

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8 Responses to “In a Moment of Happiness”

  1. Tammy Rohlf says:

    What a wonderful story! Love how you bring everything to life.

  2. Mary Russell says:

    Excellent, Rose Ann.

  3. Kailey Konow says:

    Aww…. who knew you were such a good soul? :) I probably had the stereotypical view of that State Hospital… nice to know the patients were simply people too.

  4. …What a poignant story about others in terrible need. It begins with a clear delineation of roles….those being the caring and those in need of care. But it ends with the joy, maybe a little bittersweet, of a mutual moment where the roles are a little less delineated. Rose Ann’s obviously had a big heart, since way back when. Those moments of her kindness, and the kindness of her friend, will never be taken from the people she visited. Nice story.

  5. Erika Hoffman says:

    With your writing skills, you manage to create suspense about volunteer teens aiding institutionalized folks. You deftly put us there with you as you figure out what each patient needs at that moment to give him or her a little dose of joy in their daily lives about which they have so little control. A touching story with a take-away message we all can never hear enough–little acts of kindness matter.

  6. Your story was a delightful reminder than a little kindness goes a long way. Very heart warming!

  7. Rose Ann says:

    Thanks for your high praise, Mark. Just kids wanting to do “something.” Wish we’d known then what we know now!

  8. Rose Ann says:

    Thank you for your comment, Erika! Recently, I saw the interaction between some young volunteers and older residents at a local assisted living home. I wanted to tell the teens, they would remember it the rest of their lives. But, better that they remember on their own. Sweet memories :)

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