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"You are one mean old guy," I told the elderly gentleman as I walked out of his room at the nursing home where I had been working for more than a year.
The new patient had only been there for about two weeks and he made every one of the nurse's lives a living hell. He would curse, hit, pinch or kick anyone who came near him, not to mention deliberately wetting his bed so he could get one of us near him to inflict additional torment. I don't think the old gentleman had any family because no one ever came to visit him, at least not in the eight months that I took care of him.
One day, this organization of women came to the nursing home, sang songs and handed out a single red rose to each and every one of the patients. The old man looked at the rose and then knocked the vase with the back of his hand off his eating table, breaking into 1,000 pieces as it hit the wall. Everyone just stood there looking at him in disbelief. He rolled over and faced the wall. He turned his back toward the group of women who had begun cleaning up the mess that he had made. I picked up the rose, placed it in a plastic drinking cup, sat it on his nightstand and left his room without saying a word.
For the remainder of the shift when I would return to his room that day, I would reach up and pull one of the petals off the rose and throw it into the garbage can beside his bed. He never said a word, but just looked me straight in the eye each time I pulled off one of the rose petals. Before leaving that day, I walked into his room, pulled the last rose petal off the stem and threw it into the garbage leaving only the stem in the plastic cup. As I turned to leave he grumbled, "Why did you do that?"
"I just wanted you to see what you have done to us, one petal at a time ever since you have been here," I replied.
When I returned to work the next day, I was told to go and clean out his room because he had expired during the night. When I got to his bedside, I began to pull the sheets off the bed when I happen to notice that the rose was sitting in the plastic glass. Each and every one of the rose petals had been taped back onto the stem with Scotch tape. I picked up his robe, the rose and his old black Bible, which I never saw him read and I wondered what to do with them. As I walked down the hallway staring at the rose, I remembered something that he had said to me just the day before.
"It's not that I wanted anyone to dislike me. It's just that I didn't want everyone to forget me."
Being an orphan myself, it should have made perfect sense to me then. Mr. Rahl was probably not a mean old man after all. It was just that he, like me had absolutely nobody in the world that cared about him and I think that all he really wanted was to be remembered by someone - just not be forgotten by everyone after his death. Just as both he and I had already been forgotten, even while still living our lives.
Mr. Rahl will be remembered for a long, long time. Even if it was for just being a cantankerous old man and he was very, very good at it. Unfortunately, I will be very good at it too, Mr. Rahl. Even though you were not an orphan, I am afraid that you, many others and I have had the same teacher somewhere along the way.