Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

Photo © Michelle Gabel 2008.


Ten years ago, during the welcoming ceremony for incoming students at my youngest son’s college, a speaker read a poem that ends with a question.

Many of you will recognize it, perhaps have claimed it as a mantra.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Since that day I have been a fan of Mary Oliver, buying and borrowing books to visit and revisit her poems — “Wild Geese,” “The Summer Day,” “The Journey” and many others.

How does one reply to Oliver’s question? (Or is it a challenge, a dare?)

Long before I had heard of Oliver, my answer was taking shape.

In 2003, I took three months of Family Leave to help my mother move into a nursing home. She would remain there for the next  3 1/2 years — existing, her emotions mostly flatlined by medication but mercifully no longer angry at the world, until she died peacefully sitting in her wheelchair. 

I remember wheeling her in the first day and thinking, “Is this all there is?”

One of my siblings asked me then if our mother, in the throes of early dementia, knew that the nursing home was “her last stop.” 

During my three-month leave of absence, I visited the nursing home 88 days, give or take. I say this not to boast or to seek praise, but to say that it was a privilege to be there for her and to see that world up close.

A memory seared into my brain on Day One. A 19-year-old, underpaid and overworked Certified Nurse Assistant, a tattooed young man not much older than my sons, wheeled my mother into the bathroom after she had soiled herself.

The religious among us would say CNAs do the Lord’s work, and I would not disagree.

My mom was well cared for there, although the food often looked gray. It’s all relative, of course, for there are plenty of horror stories at such warehouses of our elderly.

The $9,000 a month (2003-2006) drained all but maybe $20,000 of her life’s savings and that of her physician brother, a frugal bachelor who had bequeathed his estate to his sisters. My mother taught first grade, and my father, who died in 2000, was a postal clerk who took the bus to work every day.

During my three months of near daily visits, I sat with my mother and other residents at mealtimes, observing activities like bingo and beach ball toss, and enjoying performances by local musicians and singers. On nice days, I would take my mom outside in her wheelchair for the sunshine and fresh air — a luxury there, trust me. 

Inside, I observed so many humbling moments, bizarre conversations and quiet acts of dignity and kindness that I took notes, knowing I had to do something with what I was witnessing. 

I even tried to write a play, which I never finished or tried to publish, titled “The Unit,” a nod to the dementia floor. 

The drafts are somewhere in my files, where they should stay until the next bonfire, but I did like one part of what I wrote (it happens occasionally). 

One character was “Mr. Zip.” I made him a former postal worker who could name the Zip code of pretty much any city in the U.S. 

“Mr. Zip” got a particular kick out of asking visitors, “What’s the Zip code for that big state university in Columbus, Ohio?” (It’s 43210). He would answer his own question, “4-3-2-1-BOOM!!” and laugh uproariously. 

That was poetic license, mind you, but I had to create some levity where I could.

Like many on the Unit in real life, the man who inspired the Mr. Zip character could be funny and charming one moment, belligerent or violent the next — and sometimes remarkably reflective and insightful.

“Sooner or later,” Mr. Zip said in one of his quieter moments, “we’re nothing more than a dusty picture frame in our kids’ living rooms. Gone and forgotten.”

Those three months shaped me more than I realized. I still read the local obituaries online every day and look for familiar names and the ages of the recently deceased. If I see someone my age or younger — which happens more and more — Oliver’s question comes back at me with renewed urgency. Maybe it’s panic. 

When COVID hit in early 2020 and claimed legendary singer-songwriter John Prine as an early victim, I watched a video of him in an intimate setting singing, “Hello In There.” 

Almost immediately I signed up as a volunteer for Meals on Wheels, delivering food to senior citizens one day a week. In less than two years, six or seven of the clients on my route have died. They lived alone, but they were in their own homes or in senior housing, and they were wonderful, kind people. 

I still think about them when I drive past their homes. Occasionally Prine’s lyrics find space in my head alongside Oliver’s question.

“You know that old trees just grow stronger

And old rivers grow wilder every day;

Old people just grow lonesome

waiting for someone to say,

Hello in there, hello.”

I don’t worry too much about how things will play out for me. It’s more productive, I think, to hone a skill Oliver cites in “A Summer Day” — knowing how to pay attention.

And having the courage to ask ourselves the difficult questions.

In “When Death Comes,” Oliver wrote, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” 

The poet died in 2019 at age 83.

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. The headline comes from a song, “Three Wooden Crosses,” written by Kim Williams and Doug Johnson. John Prine’s family established the Hello In There Foundation in his memory. The foundation’s work of supporting people on the margins of society is inspired by his song, “Hello In There.”

11 thoughts on “It’s what you leave behind you when you go

  1. Jim McKeever says:

    Reblogged this on Jim McKeever and commented:

    I observed so many humbling moments, bizarre conversations and quiet acts of dignity and kindness that I took notes, knowing I had to do something with what I was witnessing.


  2. ishwie says:

    This really moved me honey, as I have been a CNA & of course my wife having long nursing home experience from CNA to LPN to RN. The vast majority of staff really love and enjoy “their” people. Your ending has long been the cover image of Scout, Jewel’s horse alter ego, and she sure lived out her life that way. XO wish


    1. Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you, Joyce! The staff there was very caring. I have so much respect for you folks who devote themselves to the most vulnerable among us. It’s discouraging that “the greatest country in the world” treats the elderly (and other groups, of course) so horribly. So much is about $$ and selfishness, greed, etc. Keep fighting the good fight, you two!


      1. Stephanie DeJoseph says:

        This piece really moved me, Jim. Is it a mere coincidence that I’m reading it today, on the day I willing be celebrating my mother’s 90th birthday with her in a dementia care facility? She receives wonderful care there but each time I go, I am shaped by how I want to live my life which is not by the example my mother showed. I want to enjoy my kids and grandkids—including all their annoyances and messes. For me, their greatest imperfections make them who they are and never fail to provide a good laugh. I’m paraphrasing Maya Angelou when she said, “I know that God had a sense of humor every time I look into the mirror.” If I can fill the world with a bit more kindness, love and laughter, it will be a well-lived life for me.


      2. Jim McKeever says:

        Such beautiful sentiments, Steph. After working with you for 10 years, I can attest that you’re living up to your standards. Some day I will fill you in on my latest adventures with our friend who picked out a color scheme for his apartment — 6 years ago! Have a wonderful Christmas, with lots of hugs and high fives for those little ones. 🙂


  3. beth says:

    this is so incredibly moving jim


    1. Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you very much, Beth. I hope all is well with you.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Jim, this post deserves better than my morning brain can give it. Such power, elegance and love in this. In your life. Thank you for creating this and leaving it behind, for everyone.


    1. Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you, Colleen. I’ve been very fortunate to have had these experiences in my life.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Katherine says:

    This was a wonderful sharing on your experiences during those last few years with your mother. It made me think of the Hospice care we provided in our home for the five months my mother in law lived with us before she died. It was a huge commitment for our family of five some 17 years ago and we were unaware of what we said yes to but sharing our life with her and vise versa touched our hearts and taught my young daughters the honor of service to others. I think we provided an amazing send off to a unique, 87 year old one of a kind woman. Despite the challenges, I would do it all again.


    1. Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you, Katherine. Your family’s selfless decision is admirable, and was such a gift to your mother-in-law and your daughters.


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