Tue, 30 Aug 2011 02:20:25 +0000

There was a dab of oil on my grandpa's forehead. I wondered how it got there. I asked a worker at the nursing home. She said, "Oh, you don't know? There's actually a man who comes in here and puts it on him."

It wasn't anyone in my family. It wasn't anyone we knew. So I wondered why someone would walk into a nursing home in Kansas, find the only Korean man and put oil between his eyes.

It was highly suspicious. So I stood up to question the nurse at the counter — to yell at her for letting a stranger put strange chemicals on my poor Grandpa. But before I could, another old man pulled up in his wheelchair and approached the nurse. He said, "I've asked for clean towels multiple times. But I haven't gotten any for a week. I pay good money to be cared for. I just want to be clean."

The woman at the desk looked up.


She looked back down.

The old man just sat there — helpless. He looked around for someone to relate to, someone to support him. But all around him were patients who could barely stay awake — like my grandpa. So he rolled his wheelchair back to his room. He turned on the TV and dozed off.

This was my first visit to Grandpa in over a year. He lives in Kansas; I live in New York. He's been in that nursing home for two years. The workers know him as Mr. Kim. He can't speak English; he can't ask for clean towels.

In fact, he can't say much of anything. I tried asking Grandpa where the oil on his forehead came from, but he was incoherent. And soon thereafter, he fell asleep. But I didn't want to leave, so I held his frigid hands; he squeezed my warm fingers.

During that time, I wondered if he ever misses people. I wondered if he ever gets lonely. I wondered if he can conceptualize the idea that dozens of people think about him every day.

Meanwhile, I wiped the oil off his forehead.

That woke him up. He looked at me and said, "Oh, when did you get here?" And then he said, "Where is your mother? And your brother?" I told them they weren't here. Shortly thereafter, he fell asleep again.

This showed me he thinks about people in his life, which probably means he misses them. It probably means he gets lonely. This broke my heart, because there are probably moments of clarity when he yearns for human connection, and I imagine those ephemeral moments are painful and confusing.

But then a white man — a stranger — walked into the nursing home and approached us. He looked at Grandpa and said, “Kim!” Grandpa smiled; his eyes lit up.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I met Kim when I was visiting another patient,” the man said. “My name is Yanus.”

Apparently he thought Grandpa didn’t have family around, so he had been visiting Grandpa every Saturday morning — for more than a year. But because Grandpa didn’t speak English, Yanus had no idea who he was. He only knew that Grandpa smiled when he talked to him.

So I told Yanus about this man he’d been visiting for over a year. I told him he was born in North Korea, that he had five kids and a wife who passed a few years ago. After all that, Yanus said, “Well let me pray for him, OK?”

Yanus bowed his head and said a few words, which Grandpa was oblivious to. When he was done, Yanus got out a little vile of oil, applied it to his finger and dabbed it on Grandpa’s forehead.

Obviously there are some problems with a stranger walking into a nursing home and dabbing oil on an elderly person’s head. But you know what? When Yanus arrived, Grandpa smiled. And when he left, Grandpa waved goodbye. And in between, I don’t think he was lonely.