How to Connect With a Difficult Individual

A frail man, he wore thick rimmed glasses and had uncharacteristically dark hair for his old age. I would often find him seated in the same spot in his trademark position – right elbow propped on the dining room table holding his face upright while cupping his right hand over his forehead, with worrisome expression.

Even his peers could reanimate his caricature when referring to him. That’s about all we knew of him besides being nearly blind and keeping to himself most of the time.

Other than a couple of bus outings, “Frank” rarely participated in any group experiences. I was intrigued. What made this man tick? Who was he?

“Frank,” I ventured, “What kinds of hobbies did you enjoy before you moved into the nursing home?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

I continued on with a series of personal questions which were always answered in ambiguities.

“What has been the most exciting adventure in your life?” I probed.

“One time I went to Alaska.”

Surprised at this revelation, I thought I’d finally discovered a topic that would enliven him. Getting specifics about the highlight of his life, however, was quite challenging.

 “Did you enjoy it?”

“It was alright.”

“Alright,” was the adjective Frank used to describe everything. Otherwise the world, through his eyes, was rather dismal.

Nonetheless, I made it a point to join him at the dining room table for lunch whenever possible.

The conversation played out typically as follows.

“How are you, Frank?”

“Alright,” he’d respond, still looking downward as he rubbed his forehead.

“Does your head hurt?”

 Does your head hurt? Was that my all my brilliant mind could come up with? No wonder the poor guy’s facial expression never changed when he was around me. I was breaking the eleventh commandment – “Thou shalt not bore us.”

“No,” he replied, “I’m having a hard time breathing.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. I sure hope you feel better.”

In those moments I couldn’t tell if I was more bored with him or myself. My adventurous spirit kicked into neutral whenever I was with Frank. Finding subject matter to discuss with him was like trying to locate a penny in a cornfield.  We’d merged together as petrified marshmallow and stale graham cracker, making the perfect s’more, only with an “n” for the “m.”

What if I had started our conversations with yes-no questions such as:  Have you had any interesting dreams lately? Do you like sauerkraut? Do you think there are aliens on Mars? Do you like our president? Have you ever flunked a subject? Do you like licorice? Do you wanna play truth or dare? Can you speak a foreign language? Can you smile for me even if you don’t feel like it? Do you want a hug? Are you bored right now? Do you wish I would go away?

Last week, I sat with him again at lunch. The conversation went along as usual. However, this time I noticed a slight shift in his demeanor.

“Well, Frank,” I started as I stood up from my chair to venture on simply out of utter mental paralysis, “I just wanted to stop by and say hello and see how you’re doing.”

As I moved away from Frank’s table, he turned his head in my direction.

“Thanks,” he said with a hint of enthusiasm and an increase in volume.

Though this sincere exchange of camaraderie would have been non-apparent to anyone else, it was monumental to me.  We had finally connected. It was the highlight of my day. Little did I know, it was to be our last conversation.

The next week a man entered the building asking for Frank’s whereabouts. I had just gotten word that Frank had passed. Assuming he was a family member or close friend, I didn’t know how to break the news.

“I’m the funeral guy,” he explained.

This man had come for the body.

Funny, I’d hoped he’d come to see Frank.

What if I had just shared my photography with him?