How to Win at Connect Four

Today* I and five other Acton MBA classmates volunteered to spend time hanging out with old folks in a rehab nursing home (i.e. old people who are sick or recently had major surgery). Specifically, we helped in the Alzheimer’s and dementia ward.

I’m really behind on my homework this weekend and was up way too late studying last night. The “smart” thing to do would have been to sleep in a bit and tackle my homework all day. Plus, I’m usually more moved by environmental causes than social causes. That snooze button looked soooo inviting. I went anyway, because I knew at a gut level that this was important too, possibly more important than any single homework assignment ever could be. Important to me, to the residents, and to my classmates. I went, and I was right.

I have to admit, I was ever so slightly disappointed in my fellow Acton classmates. Only six of us went today. There are 28 students in this year’s class, and most of us are in town already. It was only two hours of our time. Where was everyone else? I went not just because I’m friends with Evan and he set it up. I went because I want to give back and to be a contributing part of the Austin community. I want to help and be of service. I want to stretch myself. I want to volunteer for someone else’s cause, just because I care. I could go on, and I apologize for coming off as preachy, but it just felt like the right thing to do. The service-oriented mindset is what drew me to Acton, in fact, because service, gratitude, personal growth, community, and caring are all built into the curriculum itself. It’s right there in the mission statement. It’s written all over the walls of the building. So where was everyone else? Why didn’t everyone jump at the chance to volunteer too?

I don’t mean to sound judgmental, and I’m truly not, but given what we all purport be and do, you’d think all 28 of us would have been there. Now, I know we’re all giving back in our own ways. The timing was far from ideal, and maybe this just wasn’t everyone’s thing. Some people aren’t even in Austin yet. Heck, I was very, very close to skipping it myself. It’s too bad though, because everyone else sure missed out.

What, exactly, did they miss out on? For starters, Evan beatboxing with a table full of Alzheimer’s patients so far along with the disease that they couldn’t even speak words. But they all got really into it, clapping and humming rhythms more complex than I could ever do. From the looks of things, it lifted spirits a lot, Evan’s included. Townsend flirted with Mrs. Love (Mrs. LaVera Love, that’s who), telling her to keep her hands off Peter and me because we were her men. Mrs. Love bantered back and gave Townsend the biggest, happiest hug I’ve seen in years.

And consider the experience I personally brought home with me. While playing Connect Four with a whole table full of people (i.e. helping old people drop chips in slots without anyone understanding what was happening or why), one woman looked at me with a frightened expression and told me she didn’t know where she was. I told her “That’s pretty scary, isn’t it.” She nodded and whispered, “I just don’t have anything left.” She started to cry. Tearing up a little myself, I held her hand and told her, “You’re strong. You can do it.” She tentatively asked, “I… I can do it?” I replied, “I believe in you.” She stopped crying, squeezed my hand, took a deep breath, smiled, and said, “Thank you. Thank you. I love you.”

When I was young, both my Grandma Helen and my Great Aunt Edith died of Alzheimer’s. It’s a terrible, terrifying, and lonely way to go. I stopped visiting them in the nursing home because, as a kid, I had an intuition that I didn’t want all my most vivid and recent memories to be of them in that state. It was too painful for me to see them not recognize me or anyone else. It’s possible, probable even, that I made the right decision, but to this day, part of me regrets not spending more time comforting my own family members throughout what was likely the most difficult stage of their lives. I didn’t know it this morning when I got up, but maybe that’s exactly why I was there today.

Maybe some caring stranger played Connect Four with Aunt Edith twenty years ago. Maybe, for even just two minutes before it was lost in the fog, someone held Grandma Helen’s hand and helped ease her difficult end-of-life journey. Maybe two minutes made all the difference. And maybe now it’s my turn to pay it forward. I pray someone does the same for me someday. When I saw the gratitude on that woman’s face today, you could just hear my heart breaking into little pieces all over the floor.

We at Acton are gifted and fortunate. We have the abilities and circumstances to make this world a better place. Whether it’s through the businesses that we build, the organizations we volunteer for, or just in our regular old daily lives, I’m using this experience as a call to action to myself, to my classmates, and to anyone who reads this. This is a call to action to give back and keep giving back, in whatever ways are meaningful for us, even when we’re tired and stretched thin and don’t have time. Visiting the nursing home today didn’t take any special skills or training. It just took getting out of bed on a Saturday morning with four hours sleep, putting off homework just a little while longer, and making the effort to care for and connect with another very important, very lonely human being. It was worth every minute.

*Note: I wrote this essay on August 7, 2010. I posted it to Recompose, a different blog that I’ve kept since 2008. A few of my other essays found in the site you’re currently reading are from other blogs too, though I’ve only transferred the evergreen ones, essays I feel have stood the test of time.

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