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U3A Writing: My Friend Frank

Wilma Schmidt's moving tribute to an old man named Frank will make you feel a lot happier today.

Frank was a big man with a big heart. He had a natural charm and grace about him, and would be what you might call a ladies' man, even though when I met him he was well into his eighties.

I was introduced to Frank shortly after he came to live at the nursing home where I worked as a diversional therapist. My job was to give the 64 people who lived there some meaning in their lives, as well as a reason to get out of bed in the morning, besides the dictates of their bladders.

Frank was very negative at first. I had been asked to try and interest him in day-room activities and visited him in his room. He fought against efforts by nurses to get him out of bed. "Leave me to die", was all he would mumble.

Nevertheless they persisted, and he was soon sitting with his legs hanging over the side of the bed. Their intention was to help him walk a few steps, but his grossly swollen ankles were never going to fit into his black lambswool moccasins.

The next day he was brought down to the day-room in a wheelchair by a determined nurse. Frank had a hang-dog look on his face. He clearly didn't want to be there. But nurses have a reputation for subjugating their patients. I know this to be true because I am one of them also.

Spaces in the day-room filled up with about twenty other residents, and I didn't have too much time to spend individually with Frank. We did some team cooking early that morning, played carpet bowls and I read them an excerpt from a Reader's Digest story. Frank begged a passing nurse to take him back to bed straight after lunch. He was a persuasive man, and before I realised it he was gone.

However, he did return the next day, and what subsequently evolved was the most wonderful friendship for me. Each day Frank's big booming voice could be heard leading the conversation or the singing. As weeks passed, his swollen legs improved with physiotherapy, and he slowly made his way down to the day-room under the guidance of a nurse. As his mobility improved, this new independence encouraged him to be waiting to be first into the shower so that his time in the day-room started as early as possible.

Frank had regained his interest in life and living. His family was overjoyed. Although Frank was a real ladies' man, he hadn't married until he was in his forties. He came to Mildura seeking work and fell in love and married the young widow who ran the Walma Guest House where he was staying. Over the coming years he was to help her to raise her three young sons.

Other boarders at the guest-house introduced him to local football, and in particular the Imperials Football Club. He remained an avid 'Imps' follower from then on.

I watched the effect that he had on the other elderly residents of the nursing home. His vibrant personality and cheerfulness was a magnet for many of the others, and he was never short of company, especially that of the ladies. There was now a lively ambience in the day-room.

He gave his whole attention to whatever project he undertook, whether it was preparing onions or olives for pickling, or gluing small wooden items together, or furniture restoration, using the electric sander which he loved. He took charge of seeing that every visitor to the day-room had a stir of the Christmas pudding and made a wish.

He had a most expressive face. His mouth was wide of course, and his eyes would become as large as saucers when he pinned his gaze on you. If he was upset about something, he found it very difficult to conceal the emotion. All joyous expression was gone. This sulking was a rare and fleeting occurrence, and next day his good humour would return.

As the weeks and months passed, Frank's enjoyment of life was obvious to everyone. He loved the entertainments held regularly and sang duets with visiting singers.

Some teenage boys visited weekly from a local college to play carpet bowls with the residents. Frank became firm friends with these youngsters and looked forward to their visits. In return one of them, Matthew Knights, made a flag for Frank in the green and white colours of his football team. Frank had it hanging on the wall of his room.

He listened to the football each Saturday afternoon on the radio. On two occasions, I was able to take him to an Imperials match in the hospital car. He gave me instructions to look into the purchase of an Imperials’ green blazer. He wore it proudly every day from then on. From time to time, I removed the gravy and food stains from it as best as I could. There was no way he would consider being without it long enough for it to be dry-cleaned.

Frank really did enjoy his food. His eyes would grow large with pleasure as a plate of appetising fare was placed in front of him. It became known that he liked lamb's fry and bacon, and volunteer helpers, unknown to each other, would bring in this delicacy in small containers to be heated in the microwave. Mavis brought hers in on Thursday and Betty's came on Tuesday. Frank showed his appreciation always by giving the lady a kiss.

Of course, one of the offerings inevitably tasted better than the other. Frank whispered his judgement privately only to me, and gave positive feed-back to the cooks of course.

More than a year passed, and life in the day-room followed a predictable pattern. I had always looked forward to going to work as I had a job that I really loved. Now as I arrived in the mornings, I was regaled by Frank, seated at the far end of the day-room in his green Imps blazer, singing, "If you were the only girl in the world and I were the only boy". He would then sit and watch my every move as I prepared the activities for the day.

At 9 am when volunteer ladies would arrive, they would all greet Frank with a kiss. In a quiet moment together he would say to me, "You never give me a kiss".

"That's because I'm a married lady", I would respond to him. I relaxed this rule for special occasions. Frank had to settle for a kiss at Christmas and on his birthday.

Frank's presence in any group always lifted people's spirits, but there was a little bit of rivalry for my attention between Frank and another older gentleman named Bill. Frank seemed to realise this and he diplomatically made his way home at 4 pm each day, using his walking frame with a certain amount of style. This allowed Bill to get his share of my attention.

It was on one of these occasions when Frank was making his way down a corridor that he collided with another resident and fell to the ground. His hip was not broken, fortunately, but as it was quite painful, his doctor felt that a few days’ bed rest was necessary. When I called to see him, he was his usual cheery self. His eyes sparked up and the voice boomed out a greeting.

After three days of inactivity, Frank was suddenly taken very ill. A blood clot from one of his lower limbs had broken free and lodged in his brain, causing a severe stroke. Both staff and fellow residents were all very concerned about this setback. The silence in the day-room was palpable.

On the third morning I called in early to see him. There had been very little change in his condition overnight. A short time later a nurse came to fetch me as Frank's condition was deteriorating fast. He made a gallant effort to lift his head when he saw me. His eyes were lifeless and tired.

I sat next to the bed and held his large hand. There were no words that I could summon to raise his spirits as we both knew that any recovery to his former self would be unlikely and difficult. Sometimes words are not necessary between friends. I held onto his hand and he returned with a sure grip. I stayed as long as I could, but by now it was well past 9 am and I had a room full of people waiting for me. I gave him a kiss on the forehead and whispered my goodbyes to him. There was a flicker of acknowledgement in his tired eyes.

I had obligations to fill, so reluctantly I took my leave. Half an hour later a nurse friend came to tell me that Frank was dead. We cried on each other's shoulders.

I knew Frank for three years and although I know that I had helped him turn his life around, he certainly had a huge impact on mine and the many other people who lived with him in his twilight years. I only wish that I could have known him when he was younger. I often think of him still, now even 15 years later. Frank had what the writer Damon Runyon described as class. "Class is very difficult to define, but once you see it, you recognise it immediately".

My friend Frank had class - in great abundance.

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