It was just a matter of time, the doctor said sympathetically. Erma was unconscious, her weak heartbeat monitored carefully by machinery. As I watched my friend die, I thought back on our treasured friendship.
The first time I met Erma, she was sitting in her wheelchair, gazing out the glass doors of the convalescent hospital. She was a large-framed woman in her eighties, gray hair, eyes plagued by cataracts. Late for work, I walked past her, but then knew I had to go back. I shook her trembling hand and introduced myself, then asked her name.
We talked for a few brief moments, then I promised her I’d return the next day for a longer visit. Still gripping my hand, she squinted at me and then asked the question, “How can people make themselves useful?”
I stumbled for the right words and finally bid her farewell, the question lying unanswered between us—unanswered because I was searching for the answer as well. She had apparently lost the feeling of usefulness in her own life. Little did she know that she had a great purpose left—to teach me the answer to the question.
In fact, my visit to the hospital had been an attempt to find added meaning in my life. Several years earlier, I had been seriously ill for three months. Too weak to even read, I spent most of my time lying on the couch and watching television. Before long, I was deeply involved in a soap opera. Even after I went back to work, I’d race home at lunch to catch my soap. After a few years of this, I estimated I had seen numerous murders, endless backstabbing and bickering, an untold number of extramarital affairs, and a variety of other sordid activity.
I gradually began to realize that as a priesthood holder, I needed to find a better way to spend my lunch hour. I had served a mission and had been active in the Church my whole life. But I began to see that the soap opera was affecting me in subtle ways, causing me to think the ways of the world might not be so bad. At best, I was in a spiritual rut. The Spirit was whispering to me that there was a greater happiness, a greater meaning to life than I had yet experienced. I concluded I needed to overcome my habitual TV watching in order to combat this spiritual erosion in my life.
As I thought of ways to overcome this habit, I remembered that the Savior had promised we could find ourselves (and therefore happiness, I hoped) when we lost ourselves in service (see Matt. 10:39). I had always been impressed with the stories President Thomas S. Monson of the First Presidency told about his visits to rest homes. I gave it a lot of thought and decided to visit a convalescent hospital on my lunch hours. It seemed to me that in order for my project to work, I needed to be truly motivated for the happiness of the people I was serving rather than for the recognition of the world for myself. I therefore determined to keep my new lunchtime mission a secret (see Matt. 6:1–6).
Despite a little fear of the unknown, I diverted my car one day from its usual path to the TV and pointed it toward a nearby convalescent hospital instead. I marched right in and told the lady at the front desk that I wanted to be a volunteer worker on my lunch hour. I filled out some forms and she told me to “have at it.” There were plenty of lonely people who just wanted to talk.
Sure enough, I looked up and down the halls, and they were lined with people in wheelchairs, looking lost and lonely. The couches in the lobby were also full of people waiting for someone to just say hello. I looked into the rooms and saw people lying in beds, unable to get up, also waiting to talk with anybody. I later discovered that about 30 percent of the people were not able to carry on a conversation when I tried to talk with them, yet each one seemed to respond to a kind word and touch. The other 70 percent would talk freely when someone talked to them.
I made a lot of friends that first day and the days following. There was Bill, age forty-five, who had muscular dystrophy and loved country and western music. His wife had brought him to the hospital and had never returned. Bob was in his sixties, had suffered a stroke, couldn’t walk, and openly admitted that he had been a bookie—yet I have never met a nicer man. Helen was from England, and we spent hours talking about her homeland. The list goes on and on. But the person I got closest to was Erma.
“How can people make themselves useful?”
The question came to mind often during the three years I knew Erma. We became fast friends. I would drive up a little after noon, and every day she would be sitting in her wheelchair by the front door. I fed her her lunch many, many times over the next three years, and I heard much about Erma’s life. She had been married twice. She deeply loved her first husband, but he had died in the fifties. Her second husband, who had left her, had been abusive. Unable to have children, she had worked as an office manager and executive secretary to a bank president. She boasted that once she could type so fast her hands were a blur. Now her gnarled hands could hardly hold a fork or a cup.
Erma loved to laugh, and I loved to hear her laughter echoing through the cafeteria. Sometimes I would go with her to her craft class; some days we would picnic on the back lawn of the hospital. Once, along with other patients and their relatives, we went to a nearby restaurant for lunch. She loved that. But most of all, she loved to hold my hand as we sat and talked about life and loved ones.
Of course, Erma wanted to meet my family because I spoke about them frequently. After a few months, I decided to let my family participate in my secret lunchtime project. They could benefit as much as I did from visiting these wonderful people. So they began joining me once a week, and Erma loved them as much as she loved me.
By now the desolate land of the soap operas seemed light years away, and I was beginning to find purpose and meaning in life again.
One day when I arrived at the hospital, Erma was not waiting for me. Worried, I quickly discovered that she was ill and had been taken to the intensive care unit. It just so happened, I believe by some grand design, that our youngest child was admitted as a tonsillitis patient at the same time and assigned to the room right next door to Erma’s room. For several days I shuttled between the rooms.
Although my child’s health soon began to improve, Erma was not doing well; she was agitated, and I think we both knew the end was near. I did not want her to be alone, and I sensed that she wanted me near when the time came. Dying alone seemed so sad. I didn’t want that for my friend Erma.
So there I was, waiting in Erma’s room and counting my blessings that she had been a part of my life. I left for a few minutes to tend to the needs of my child, and when I returned, the nurse was standing next to the bed. As we silently watched the monitor, Erma’s heartbeat pattern on the monitor suddenly looked erratic, then it stopped.
“She waited for you to come back,” the nurse whispered. “She didn’t want to be alone.”
Erma had stepped to the other side of the veil. I felt her presence so strongly. I felt love, love for her and for every person on earth. As the tears fell, I wondered, Could this be the answer to Erma’s question? Yes, this is what it meant to lose myself. In an unexplainable way my spirit soared to heights I had never before imagined possible. I will be forever thankful that the Lord gave me my friend Erma, who taught me how people can “make themselves useful.”