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Warding Off The Loneliness

by Bill Thompson


Several years ago I worked as an orderly in a veterans residential care
facility at London, Ont. Known affectionately as The Wing, the facility was comprised of several pavilions surrounded by acres of woodland. The buildings, which were named after eight western Ontario counties, overlooked a large pond that attracted geese and other small creatures.For the veterans who lived there, The Wing was a paradise–a Garden of Eden–within the busy city. For me, it was a good place to work–a place where I met some remarkable people and where I learned how to ask a very common, but important, question.

The main floor of Wellington pavilion housed a kitchen, dining room, lounge, library and administrative offices. Its basement contained staff locker rooms, a bowling alley and the residential laundry room. Waterloo was a large red-brick structure that housed a gymnasium/auditorium, recreational office and kitchenette. Its basement included an indoor heated pool, canteen and the veterans pub, known as the Iron Duke.

Middlesex was a small pavilion used mostly for arts and crafts. Residents could learn ceramics, leatherwork, stained glass, woodworking, silk-scarf painting and pottery. They also made stuffed toys that were sold to the public.

I remember the bright December morning in 1982 when I arrived at Lambton, the pavilion occupied by those residents requiring more direct care. After hanging my coat in the orderlies’ room, I headed down the hall to the nurses’ station where I scanned the notices on the bulletin board. That’s when I discovered I’d be working five days over Christmas.

The problem was that my wife and I had talked about spending Christmas in Toronto with her parents. Instead of scrapping that idea altogether, it was decided that she and our two daughters would go to Toronto and I would stay and work my five-day shift. And since we lived outside London and had only one car, I needed to find a place in the city where I could stay and rely on public transit.

However, my need for temporary accommodation vanished when Captain Roland Morgan–the president of The Wing’s residents council–suggested I stay with the residents during Christmas. He told me there was an empty bed at the end of a room he shared with two other veterans in the Perth pavilion.

And so two days before Christmas, my family dropped me off at work with my small suitcase in hand. Minutes later I was shown to my room and to a freshly made bed that sat next to a large window. There were three other beds in the room, and I also remember the heat that was being pumped from the hot water radiator beneath the window.

After unpacking my belongings, I left Perth and walked down the gravel path to Lambton pavilion where I bumped into Captain Morgan. He was carrying the morning newspaper, and as we passed we both said: “Good morning. How are you?”

Several times during the day the staff at the nurses’ station joked about how
I was to be given the same treatment the residents received. “Make sure he has his bath, a shave and clean clothes,” they ordered. “Make sure his bed is made, especially during the Christmas season with the increased flow of visitors.”

My work day ended at 3 p.m., but instead of going home I returned to my room. There was no one there and so I figured my roommates had gone down to the Iron Duke. I changed my clothes, thought about my two daughters and how they were doing, and then headed to the pub for a visit with the residents and a ginger ale.

I learned over supper that the residents had agreed to pay for my three meals a day, plus my evening snacks. I thanked them for this, but it seemed awfully strange for me–an employee–to line up with the men in the cafeteria. It soon dawned on me that I was suddenly part of the same routines I had observed as an orderly.

Coffee, tea and sandwiches were served at 7:15 p.m. by an orderly who took a few moments to invite me to Lambton pavilion for coffee with the staff. I politely declined his offer and explained that the residents had paid for my snacks. “But I will come later to say hello,” I told him.

Sitting in the lounge next to me was Captain Morgan who was busy enjoying his snack. The residents and staff called him Captain after Captain Morgan Rum–and yes, he liked his rum. “How are you, Bill?” he asked.

“Oh, I’m fine,” I said.

As he sat there he clicked his pipe with his teeth and I got the impression there was something else on his mind. “You don’t deserve this, Bill,” he said. “It’s Christmas. But I’m glad you’re here with us.”

I looked around the room and noticed how a lot of the men seemed pained by my situation. Their expressions told me I would be getting to know them differently over the next four days. Indeed, they had welcomed me into their circle and would give me the chance to walk in their shoes.

While the recreation and administration departments shut down over Christmas, the pub and library remained open until Christmas Day. The librarian was a resident named Albert Grundy, a short thin man who shared the room I was staying in. I’ll never forget how Albert’s heavy eyebrows–set above small friendly eyes –peered over his wire-rimmed glasses whenever he spoke.

As the holiday mail ground to a halt, Lloyd Mills–my third roommate–continued his newspaper deliveries. Lloyd was a jolly, mid-size man with an ambitious step to his walk.

On the night before Christmas Eve, my roommates visited Essex pavilion for their pills, and a shot of gin, rum or brandy. They then returned to the room and settled into their beds for the night. Surprisingly, I slept well.

Snow fell lightly on the morning of the 24th and while the halls and lounges were fully decorated, the loneliness among the residents was palpable. There were few–if any–visits from family members, and some of the residents had prepared for the day by quietly bringing in bottles from the city liquor outlets. My presence did not intimidate these veterans because their loneliness was too deep. Some of them sat and drank on their beds while others stretched out over the covers.

I sat on my bed, drinking tea.

I remember looking over at my roommates and suddenly asking: “How are you?”

All three turned to face me at the same time. That’s when I slowly nodded as if somehow I understood their feelings. I then asked them if they would share with me some good memories of Christmas, and one by one the stories were told. There were memories from childhood, early marriages, Christmas in the barracks and from prison camps during war. There were wonderful and painful reminders. Recollections of walking into a bush to cut down the perfect Christmas tree, making decorations, gathering coal, carolling, dancing, receiving care packages during the war, even painting a Christmas tree on the barrack walls and placing small packages of jam on it for decoration.

They also recalled the first Christmas back home after the war and the ones spent with wives and children and a house full of guests. All four of us laughed at the jokes and cried at some of the sadder memories.

Were we OK? No. None of us was fine on that Christmas Eve in 1982.

By midnight, the men were quiet. I rose from my bed, dressed and collected my coat and boots. I walked in the moonlight and I noticed how its brilliance reflected on the freshly fallen snow. What had happened to me this Christmas? Why was I here when I had two young daughters? Thoughts of life, family, friends and now war veterans floated in and out of my mind.

My brief stay at The Wing had made me realize that for some there is loneliness and emptiness at Christmas; the kind of feelings young people like myself don’t always see.

I remember how the cold night closed in around me and how it eventually brought me back to my bed where I prayed and then fell asleep.

When I awoke the next morning my roommates were already on the move. They were making their beds, getting dressed and looking forward to a good breakfast. It was Christmas Day, and today I would slow down and take the time to pass on my best wishes to The Wing’s residents. Why? Because I knew how they were, and because I knew how I was.

Today, I would not only walk by when asked: “How are you?” Today, I would stop to watch them when I greeted them. I wanted to see them, maybe for the first time. I wanted to see their eyes and hear the tone of their voices. I wanted them to tell me how they really were; false fronts and masks were no longer needed by any of us.

Members of The Royal Canadian Legion were there to help Santa pass out gifts to each veteran. They visited every room and left gifts on the beds of veterans who were away visiting family members. I waited until my shift ended before I stopped at the pay phone to wish my family a merry Christmas. I then headed through the snow to the woods with mixed emotion, but generally feeling blessed to have been able to spend Christmas with these war veterans.

During the next couple of days I made a point of sitting with the veterans and listening to their stories. I may not have opened a single present on Christmas Day that year, but what was opened were my eyes and my heart towards these men. Indeed, it was a turning point for me to know them personally, and my awareness of their needs brought new meaning to the question: “How are you?”

This question was no longer a polite phrase spoken during a passing moment. It was now a heartfelt question because I really did want to know how they were doing.

My roommates from The Wing have since died, and during the mid-1980s the old pavilions were replaced by newer facilities that are attached to Parkwood Hospital.

The changes have been significant and all for the good, but the memories of those days live on in my mind. It was a Christmas to remember.


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