Saturday, July 30, 2011

Making Ethel Smile

By Joseph Walker

MAKING ETHEL SMILE

Her name was Ethel. I didn't know it at the time, of course. To tell the truth, it really didn't matter. All that mattered was that the music was playing, the dance floor was beckoning, she was woman, I was man. Let's dance.

I know – I was married. It was OK. My wife, Anita, was on the same dance floor, cutting a rug with a good-looking' guy named Clarence. That's sort of the way it is during dances at the nursing home. You come, you see who is ambulatory, you dance.

We had gone to the nursing home "hoe-down" to be with my Dad, who was a resident there. But my sister, my daughters and my wife were handling Dad's dancing needs, which left me free to check out the female talent. I danced with several women, including one who whistled – loudly and beautifully – throughout the song, and one who started screaming when I asked her name. They were all wonderful ladies, and I enjoyed each moment of musical movement – even when that "movement" consisted mainly of keeping my partner from falling down (sort of reminded me of a sorority dance I was invited to in my college days – but I digress).

Ethel, however, was special. There was fire in her eyes, and passion in her voice. When I asked if she would like to dance, she looked me dead in the eye and responded brightly: "Yes I would!" Her eyes never left mine as we danced. When I asked her name, she said, "My name is Ethel!" When I asked if she liked dancing, she told me, "Yes I do!" When I told her she was a good dancer, she replied, "Yes I am!" Always brightly. Always with energy. Always with grace.

But never with a smile. For some reason, during all of our pleasant interaction, she never smiled at me. Not once. After our dance was over and I returned her to her seat, I asked one of the care center employees if there was a reason why Ethel couldn't smile.

"No," I was told. "She can smile. She just doesn't smile very often."

Well, that sounded like a challenge to me. So I spent the rest of the night trying to make Ethel smile. I told her both of my jokes (note to self: a care center for Alzheimer's patients probably isn't the best place to try out a standup comedy routine). I brought her food. I made faces at her while I was dancing with other women. She watched me carefully – almost intensely. She nodded at the jokes, thanked me for the food and made faces back at me. But she didn't smile.

I was about to go Jerry Lewis on her – you know, drop my pants, fall on the floor, break a vase over my head or some other sophisticated form of comedy – when something funny happened. Or didn't happen, as the case may be. Clarence, Anita's former dance partner, wandered over to where Ethel was sitting and sat in the chair next to her. He reached over and gently patted her hand. She looked at him. He smiled at her. She smiled back. Simple as that. The smile I had been working for all night was given to Clarence for just a pat and a grin. It wasn't fair. Unless . . .

"They're married aren't they?" I asked the attendant. "Or maybe sweethearts?"

"Nah," she said. "They're just friends."

I've heard that phrase before – "just friends" – and I'm not exactly sure what it means. It seems to infer a relationship that somehow lacks something. But my experience has been that a good and trusted friend is more than just . . . well . . . "just." Friendship is an extraordinary thing. It can bring depth to your life, comfort to your soul, joy to your heart and a smile to your face.

Just ask Ethel.

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