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Dr. N

Mr. N was one of the first people I met when I started a new job at a local senior living community. He looked younger than most of the other residents there, and at first I thought maybe he was a family member visiting someone. That first week, we saw each other every day and he always gave me a warm and genuine smile in return to my "Good morning, Mr. N!" He never said good morning back, but the smile was all I needed to persist in my efforts of making him be my friend. 

One afternoon soon after I'd started the new job, a coworker told me that my new friend had aphasia; he wasn't choosing just to smile instead of speaking a greeting back, he couldn't say the words. I asked what she knew about him — how he'd lost his voice, how he'd ended up in the retirement home, if he had family, etc. — and she admitted she wasn't really sure; "they don't tell us that sort of thing… I just work here!" she said. 

I decided to work even harder to become friends with Mr. N. And he'd seemed to have made the same decision, because every morning – instead of just having our normal "good morning" ritual in the hallway as I walked to my office – Mr. N started coming into my office with me. Every morning was the same thing: he'd come in and wordlessly lift up his hand. In his palm he'd have scraps of food, things he hadn't eaten for breakfast. I'd smile and nod and say "Hmm, looks like you didn't enjoy your pumpkin muffin, huh?" and he'd smile then head back out the door. I'd shake my head and smile to myself – hey, I wanted a friendship, and if showing me his breakfast leftovers is what made Mr. N happy, I was all for it. 

As the weeks went on, the amount of leftovers grew. He'd upgraded from bits of food in his palm to full biscuits and muffins in a ziploc bag. He'd come in, I'd say good morning, and he'd show me the loot. Sometimes he'd hold it out to me, an offering. Thinking he was suggesting I eat some of his castoff cafeteria food, I'd politely decline with a "thanks, but I'm full!" and he'd be on his way with a smile. 

One day after I'd turned down the offer of toast crusts, Mr. N didn't leave. He was still trying to communicate something to me. He shook the bag of food and nodded his head toward the door. "I'm really not hungry, thanks though Mr. N! I'll see you later!" But he didn't give up. I finally realized he wanted me to follow him wherever he was headed to next. A little worried that we were on our way to continue offering bread scraps to other folks down the hall, I somewhat hesitantly closed my office door and followed behind. But Mr. N wasn't on to someone else; he led me out the backdoors from the lobby onto a very underutilized (but still somewhat magical) back patio.

The minute Mr. N opened the double doors into the overgrown grassy area, birds from every direction flocked to the patio. To him. To Mr. N. It was like the scene in Cinderella where all the birds come perch on her shoulder while she sings her merry tune. Mr. N wasn't singing, but merry he was. He took the leftovers out of the ziploc and methodically crumbled them into small beak-size pieces. He then scattered them across the lawn before coming back to sit in a rocking chair and watch. I sat with him, in awe, as the birds swooped in on the food then squawked a thank you to their provider before again soaring off. 

Almost every morning after that, I'd join Mr. N on his morning trip. It was the perfect way to start my day. We'd sit in companionable silence as the birds enjoy their feast, then we'd smile at each other and head inside. Mr. N didn't miss a day. Rain or shine, he spent time with his bird friends. He cared for them and treated them with so much love. It was a beautiful thing to witness. Sometimes as we watched the birds together, Mr. N would go inside and leave me. What is he doing? Should I stay out here? Are we done? Then he'd come back with a bird anthology in his hands, flipped open to a specific page to show me what birds had joined us that morning. 

Through this, I learned that Mr. N loved birds. I didn't know anything else about him, but this was enough to provide a foundation for a pretty awesome kinship. I wanted to know more about my friend. So I'd ask him what sports he liked, then offer a pad of sticky notes and a pen. "Soccer, golf" he wrote and handed back, before shaking the bag of food and beckoning me to the patio as if to say "Enough about me, the birds are waiting!" One day he came with a business card in his hand. I looked at it: "MD PhD Child Psychology?!?!" I exclaimed. He smiled humbly. Wow, who knew. "Dr. N, then, huh?" He nodded. 

Just because someone can't answer our questions verbally doesn't mean we shouldn't ask them. There is so much more to a person than their vocal cords; even if they're silent, they should still have a voice. And more importantly, we need to be still enough and quiet enough and patient enough and curious enough to listen.

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