COMMENTARY: Lessons on Suffering Learned From a Life Well-Lived in a Nursing Home
It’s not often in life that one connects with another person on a purely spiritual level. That’s the sort of friendship I had with Lee. He was an illiterate 83-year-old man in a nursing home who had worked most of his life as a gardener. We had almost nothing in common. He never even knew my name. And yet, through our connection in Christ, we had everything in common.
We talked “genuine,” as Lee once put it, in ways people seldom talk today. We sang hymns, we prayed, and we read the Bible together. We shared our love of Christ. Although he was in chronic pain in a wheelchair, with all sorts of health problems, Lee was one of the happiest of men. When others I knew were indifferent or grumpy or complaining about trivialities, I’d go see Lee, and he’d cheer me up.
Lee seldom complained, although his life had never been easy. As one of 10 children, he was his alcoholic father’s “most hated child.” His only surviving sister told me that “Poppa” frequently beat Lee and ridiculed him to the point that Lee had chronic “fits” (asthmatic-like seizures) that haunted him all his life. He could never learn in school. He couldn’t even read.
When his father fell from a ladder on a construction site and had to go on disability, Leo dropped out of school and went to work on a garbage truck to help support his family. He was only 13.
During World War II, Lee was drafted into the Army; he never talked about that part of his life. He was married twice. Both wives died of heart disease. His only child — a boy — died an alcoholic.
Lee once told me the happiest times of his life were when he was in church. He loved the Bible and would listen — completely mesmerized — as I read him the Gospel. When I’d pause, he’d often shake his head and exclaim, “Ain’t that beautiful? Ain’t that beautiful?” He loved every passage. When our priest, Father Bruce, would come to see him on Mondays and they’d pray together, Lee would talk about the visit all week.
One of Lee’s favorite adages was one he’d made up himself: “Life is great if you don’t weaken — but who wants to be strong anyway?” That saying meant a lot to him. Once I heard a man who was a millionaire say bitterly, “They say life is great if you don’t weaken — but I never believed that junk.” I told Lee about it, and he just shook his head. “It’s too bad,” he said. “He has so much money, but he has nothing.”
Being received into the Catholic Church was life-changing for Lee, as it is for anyone who’s paying attention. Week after week, as Lee received Christ in the Eucharist, his fears gradually began to subside, and his health improved. Before he was received into the Church, Lee was being rushed by ambulance to the hospital two and three times a month. Each time he returned from the hospital, a nurse told me, he had gone further downhill.
Three weeks after he became a Catholic, he went back to the hospital once again. Another priest, Father Ryan, anointed him, calling down angels to guard him, and Lee didn’t return to the hospital for more than a year.
An 89-year-old Czech woman, who’d escaped from the Nazis during World War II, lived across the hall from Lee in the nursing home. She told me that after I came to read him the Bible, Lee was a “changed man.” But it wasn’t me, of course. It was Jesus.
Shortly after Lee was received into the Church, he looked at me rapt with wonder one day and said excitedly, “I’ve got to tell you something. Last night, as I was lying in bed in the dark, Jesus came to me. He patted my arm three times like this, my leg three times, and my heart three times — like so. Does stuff like this really happen?” I assured him that, yes, it does — that the night I was confirmed in the Church, I went home and heard the angels singing. When I first met Lee, his hands often shook violently for no apparent reason. The last days of his life, his hands were perfectly calm.
No matter how many pains and trials he suffered, Lee always trusted in Jesus. He had the faith of Job. As we read the Gospel and finished a passage about Christ’s suffering, Lee would shake his old head and say, “Boy, he really had a hard life, didn’t he?”
Lee identified with that hard life and was especially fond of those “justice” passages in which Jesus told the hypocrites what would happen to them if they didn’t repent. Lee has lost everything: wives, children, family. Someone even stole the new clothes I gave him for Christmas. But to Lee, possessions and money didn’t matter. He once asked, “How can I worry about something I haven’t got?”
Lee and I talked occasionally about suffering, and Lee said, “I suffer an awful lot.” At Christmas dinner in the nursing home, when he felt most alone, he’d cry. Once when we read a prayer that began, “Lord God, the cross reveals the mystery of your love,” Lee nodded heartily. I replied, “You get that, don’t you?”
He once again nodded in silence.
I said, “Lee, I just don’t get that part. Someday you’re going to have to explain it to me.” I expected Lee to give me the words to explain the meaning of suffering, but he never did. Now I see that, with his life, Lee did explain the meaning of suffering to me. I just had to pay attention.
The Benedictine monks speak of a joy that is found on the “further side of emptiness.” Lee had found that joy. He’d lost everything that matters in the world and depended only on God.
About two weeks before he died, Lee looked at me and said, “I love you so very much.”
“I love you, too, Lee,” I replied, “and you don’t even know my name, do you?”
He shook his head. He didn’t know my name, and we both knew it didn’t matter. He always just called me “kid.”
I was richly blessed to be with Leland Henderson during his last day on earth. He “ate” half a chocolate milkshake (with whipped cream on top), said the Our Father with me, listened raptly to the 23rd and 21st Psalms, sang what he could of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and fell asleep as I prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet at his bedside.
He always got the hiccups when he was excited, and once when I told him he was either going to have to eat to gain weight, or he would soon see Jesus face-to-face — he got the hiccups. One of the last things he said to me was: “I’m happy. Are you happy?” As I left him, I kissed his forehead and wrapped the rosary around his hands. Early that next day, at 3am, he died peacefully in the Lord’s arms.
Lee was an old man living alone in a nursing home, ignored by the world. In the end, he had nothing, as the world measures things. And yet I think if Americans knew more people like Lee, we’d have far less public support for assisted suicide and euthanasia laws in this nation. It has been said the secret to happiness, even amid difficulties, is giving God first place in our lives. Lee knew this secret to happiness, and he taught it to me.