Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fabric of Life: Melissa's Crocheted Table Cloth Gift

We received this touching story via email directly from the author, and thought you might be interested in reading it.

Fabric of Life: Melissa's Crocheted Table Cloth Gift
By Keith John Paul Horcasitas
© 2012 Keith Horcasitas. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



A short story about Melissa's crocheted table cloth gift for my wife, and how it continues to transform me - initially, in how to be a better listener and social worker and continually, in finding ways, like she did, to craft the fabric of life for God, myself and others.

It was the first Sunday of the month, so we got ready to coordinate the donuts' ministry after the 9:15 AM Latin Mass at St. Agnes in Baton Rouge like we usually did. After picking up the donuts and getting to church before Mass, I set up the table outside to be ready for when the little (and big) kids would come running later for some sweet rewards for good behavior in church.

The table cloth this time was different from the normal white covers we usually used - it was a beautiful crimson red crocheted circular shaped cover that fit neatly over the folding table; Maria must have put this in the supplies bag, since it was in January, technically still in the Christmas season (not in any way symbolizing my support for Saban's Alabama - for what was then the upcoming BCS game in New Orleans that LSU lost!). A rush of memories suddenly came over me as I recalled this table cloth, which I had commissioned Melissa to make many years ago for my sweetheart, Maria, before we were married. And with March being "National Social Work Month," I couldn't help but see how instrumental Melissa was with my development in the field.

When I first met Melissa in the fall of 1981, I was unaccustomed to interacting with folks at nursing homes. So I was a little tentative in knowing what to say as a greeting or how to fully engage with her. Even though this was part of the mental health outreach work that I was involved in to isolated elders in the San Joaquin area of California per the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC), I had not previously done a lot of visitations, either personally or professionally, with elders.

Her semi-private room door was already ajar, so I gently knocked on it to alert her that I was coming in and said, "Is this a good time for a visit, Ms. Melissa," as I had been foretold by the charge nurse that she was someone identified who may possibly benefit from professional contact for depression and isolation. It sounded like Melissa had no local family contacts and was very limited in her mobility due to severe degenerative joint disease.

As our eyes met when I went closer to her bed, she appeared very diminutive and emaciated yet manged to convey a cheerful smile as she softly spoke, "I'm here working on another treasure - come and see it." I stood right next to her and noticed how contorted her body was with pillows all around her hospital bed for cushioning and relief. My eyes were then immediately drawn to her hands that evidenced the twisted trauma of rheumatoid arthritis.

Somehow, securely in place between her thumb and index finger was a crocheting needle affixed in some cloth material with a pattern for some design that she was working on. She proceeded to ask me the normal pleasantry question one does when meeting a new person for the first time: "Where are you from?" as she continued to work her crochet needle elegantly in a continuous fashion with her eyes fixed on some cloth that appeared to be a quilt being made.

After I told her my name, my work role and that I was from New Orleans, there was a period of that silence that most of us know about - when you are uncomfortable about what to say next. Here I was, a social work apprentice remembering the dictum to "start where the client is," so I shut up and tried to use some listening skills that I supposedly had acquired in undergraduate studies. Over the next hour and following many of subsequent visits with Melissa, I learned much from and with her about what coping strategies can help elders and anyone in dealing with depression and isolation - intertwined with other "fabrics of life" lessons - not to mention learning how to crochet! Later, I certainly made brownie points with Maria from Melissa's beautiful crocheted birthday gift!

I followed my JVC year by concentrating on gerontology within the Graduate School of Social Work at San Diego State University. It was neat how after my first year of graduate school, Maria and I were married and able to take a trip to the San Joaquin Valley to visit with Melissa, who had declined but was still crocheting. The gerontology section of the School of Social Work was the smallest of the four divisions, with only 10 students. The students in the other social work divisions seemed reluctant, even fearful of working with the elderly. They were preparing for the fields of mental health, children and families and hospital social work. They wondered aloud why I would consider working with "that group." I certainly shared with them some memories of lessons learned from Melissa and Lucille, a frail elder whom I was a care giver for in my first year of graduate school.

My fellow grad students thought of working with the elderly as depressing; they were put off by the urine smells in nursing homes and by the death and dying. One student even shared a fear of "touching someone with wrinkles." These feelings were shared honestly, and my fellow students were better suited to work with struggling families and children or in hospital settings. I couldn't help but recall how touched I was by Melissa's rheumatoid hands and spirit!

Aside from my time studying the biological, economic and psychological aspects of aging, my school experience taught me that too often old age is hidden not just from our eyes but even more from our feelings. We not only tend to deny the reality of old men and women living in closed rooms and nursing homes, but also, as Henri Nouwen noted, the old man or woman who is slowly awakening in each of us. Melissa certainly gave me an invaluable understanding far beyond book knowledge of aging, coping with losses and death and dying.

Back at church, after Maria and I had finished giving out the mouth watering donuts with milk and orange juice intertwined with some great conversations, we folded the exquisite crocheted table cloth from Melissa and shared a prayer of thanksgiving for the living legacy of what Melissa had shared with us - the fabric of life!

Keith John Paul Horcasitas, LCSW, MHA
1133 Knollhaven Drive, BRLA 70810
khorcasitas AT yahoo DOT com
January 15, 2012