I worked as the storyteller-in-residence at Baycrest – a hospital for geriatric care in Toronto, with an associated long-term care facility – from 2014-2018. I felt privileged every day that I could bring storytelling to this incredible community of patients, residents, family members, volunteers, and staff. I worked with people in a wide range of clinical settings, including palliative care, psychiatry, and rehab, as well as with residents of an Alzheimer’s floor in the long-term care facility. I also hosted a weekly group open to all members of the Baycrest community and people from the general public. Working closely with my colleague and friend Melissa Tafler (a social worker who led the Arts and Health program where my residency was developed), we created an approach to storytelling in healthcare we call “storycare.” It involves making and valuing spaces within a healthcare community where storytelling, storylistening, and storykeeping can be used to build meaning, inclusion, and imagination for people who may otherwise have limited opportunities for social engagement. I chronicled my adventures with storycare in a series of short articles that were published in The Star, The Globe and Mail, National Post, the Canadian Jewish News. For more information and articles, please visit http://www.storycare.ca.
1) A Chelm Story
Shlemiel woke up one day and looked around his little house. The kids were busy playing video games. His wife was already starting to scold him for being lazy. The dog had peed – again – on the kitchen floor. Enough already, he thought. There’s got to be a better place than Chelm for a man like me. He took some bread and an onion and told his family he was heading for Warsaw. The kids barely looked up to say goodbye. His wife was banging her wooden spoon in a threatening manner. The dog was growling. Shlemiel was glad to leave the place.
He walked through the village and everyone he saw asked where he was going. “Warsaw,” he said. “I’m heading to the big city. Enough of this village life – you can have it. You know the old proverb: if you only go where others have been, you’ll only see what others have seen.” He walked about a kilometer and then felt tired. He wasn’t used to working and he wasn’t used to walking. He found a shady spot under a tree and settled down for a nap. When he woke up he would continue on the road to Warsaw. He took off his battered old shoes and stretched out on the ground for a snooze. Then he sat up again. What if he forgot the way he was heading? How would he remember the way to Warsaw? That’s when Shlemiel had a great idea. He pointed his shoes in the direction he’d been walking. That way, he would know which way to go when he awoke. And so Shlemiel fell into the deep and happy sleep of a man who is on the high road to adventure.
But while he was sleeping, as my Romanian grandmother used to say, something happened. If it hadn’t happened, how could I tell you about it?
Before I do, I should mention that I told this story in my Tuesday storytelling circle at Baycrest Health Sciences, where I work as the storyteller-in-residence. Every Tuesday afternoon, we have a gathering in the library. There’s a bit of wheelchair choreography as 20 – 30 people show up from the hospital, the nursing home, the community. After a few minutes, we somehow fit everyone in. We have patients, residents, caregivers, neighbours, family members: a wide range of people from what I think of as our village of storytellers. We always have a lively exchange of stories, from folktales to personal experiences, from family memories to stories of the Holocaust, from anecdotes of Toronto’s Kensington Market to Filipino proverbs. I try to tell stories that will spark more stories, and each session becomes a live, impromptu weaving-together of the narratives that are conjured as people listen to each other.
Many of the people in the group have degrees of impairment. There are men who have suffered grievous strokes, men and women with Alzheimer’s, a wide range of the mental and physical frailties that accompany old age. Encouragingly, the one intact organ that virtually everyone still has is a sense of humour. For a group that wheels and walkers their fragile way into our haimishe (Yiddish: cozy, homey, intimate) library space, there are surprisingly many moments of joyous, unrestrained laughter.
A farmer had seen Shlemiel go to sleep under the tree and also how carefully he’d pointed his shoes down the road. He came over and turned them around to point back to Chelm. When Shlemiel woke up, he took note of the direction his shoes were pointing, put them on, and walked about a kilometer. That’s when he began to feel strange. The outskirts of Warsaw looked a lot like what he remembered of Chelm. People began to greet him: “How are you, Shlemiel? That was a short trip.” He was puzzled. How did the citizens of Warsaw know his name? He walked down a street and came to a house that looked oddly familiar. A woman came out and welcomed him. She sounded just like his wife on a good day. Before he knew it, he had walked into the house. There was a nice smell of chicken soup. It smelled just the way his wife’s soup smelled. There were children in the room. They stopped playing long enough to say, “Hi papa.” Even the dog came over and licked his hand. How was this possible? Chelm and Warsaw seemed to be the same, though Warsaw did seem a little nicer.
The story doesn’t say what happened next. Did he ever figure out that he never did make it to Warsaw? Did things get better in Chelm after his brief adventure? Some versions tell us that every night he told his “Warsaw” wife and children stories about his distant-but-never-forgotten Chelm family. He didn’t want to dwell on the unpleasantness that made him leave in the first place, so he made up stories about how kind and sweet they used to be. Strangely, as the children heard these tales, they stopped playing video games all the time and began to talk to their father more. And his wife stopped scolding him as much. And the dog finally got house-trained, just like the Chelm dog used to be – at least in the stories Shlemiel made up about him. And in the end, even Shlemiel couldn’t remember where he was, and it didn’t really matter anymore. Home is home, even if you no longer quite remember where it is or if you ever left or how you got there in the first place.
My listeners, including those with Alzheimer’s, laughed and laughed. They, too, are on a journey that has led them away from the familiar. They, too, sometimes don’t know where they really are. And, just like with Shlemiel, their stories have become necessary landmarks and beacons, sources of reassurance and meaning even when other connections have become attenuated and broken. And so every Tuesday we tell each other stories about our many homes, and stories about places so distant there is no map that can still lead us there.
Story of a Feather
A white feather floated out of my old parka into the hospital room. The timing was uncanny. I work as the storyteller-in-residence at Baycrest Health Sciences, and was visiting a patient in the palliative care unit. Milton was very frail, and his wife and daughter were keeping vigil at his bedside. Even in our short acquaintance, I knew him to be a gentle, courtly, funny man. The day he was admitted, he was surrounded by the women he loved and who loved him: wife, daughters, daughters-in-law, granddaughters. “I won the lottery,” he said, gesturing at his circle of beloveds. He was a good man who’d had a good life. Despite the sorrow in the room, I asked his wife and daughter if M had a favorite joke. Turns out he did, so I asked them to tell it to me.
Storycare – making room for stories to be told, heard, and remembered – should be an essential part of healthcare. One woman I met on the 6th floor was in her early sixties. She needed a story she could tell her grandchildren to help them understand the mystery of her imminent death. I told her the West African story of the tortoises, the human beings, and the stones.
In the beginning of the world, there was no death. Every living creature could live forever, on one condition: they couldn’t have children. One day tortoises came to Worldmaker and asked to have baby tortoises. They said, “If we can look on the faces of our children first, then we are not afraid to die.” They rejoiced as their children began to be born. And then everyone wanted children, including Man and Woman. “Are you willing to die,” asked the Creator, “so that you may have children?” All living creatures agreed. And that’s how death came into the world.
My listener asked, “What about the stones? You said it was a story about tortoises, people, and stones.” I told her that, according to the story, stones never wanted to have children. That’s why stones never die. She found the story strangely comforting. “It’s better to be a grandma than a stone,” she said, “even if you don’t last forever. That’s what I’ll tell them.”
Sometimes I tell the old proverb: A person is not dead unless they have been forgotten. My own father died here, and I often think of him as I go from room to room. Time on the 6th floor moves too quickly and too slowly and, in his last few weeks, we never seemed to find a moment to speak of the things that mattered to us. And then it was too late.
So perhaps M’s bedside was just the right place for his wife to tell his favorite joke. Here, with her permission, it is.
The Pope was sick and needed a heart transplant. He stood on the balcony and spoke to the multitude gathered in St. Peter’s Square. “The doctors tell me I need a new heart. Would one of you donate your heart so that I may live?
Thousands of voices (she used a bad Italian accent) shouted, “Take-a my heart! Take-a my heart!”
“I must ask for a sign from God,” said the Pope, ”to choose the donor.” A dove flew over and a white feather drifted down from its wing. “This is the sign!” said the Pope. “Whoever the feather lands on, will give up your heart.”
Thousands of voices continued to shout, “Take-a my heart! Take-a my heart,” even as they puffed – “PFFFF! PFFFF!” – at the slowly falling, fateful feather.
That’s when the piece of white down popped out of a small tear in my well-worn parka, and drifted over M’s bed, and made the family smile. Their beloved joke-teller had the last word after all.
Ineluctably fragile, yet sturdy enough to last a lifetime, the bond between clay and spirit carries us through our span of years to this clean bed in a quiet room on the 6th floor at Baycrest. Then, since life is a gift we must return one day, the bond breaks and, feather-light, we must travel on – until someone tells our story. Then, mysteriously, some part of us returns.
How to Talk to a Butterfly
One story welcomes another. When one story is told, it becomes a haven and a habitat for the next one, and the next. Human beings are blessed with this marvelous gift of being able to weave an impromptu tapestry of interconnected tales, linked by the simple phrase: That reminds me.
This is what happens on a good day of storytelling on the 4th floor at Baycrest Health Sciences. The 4th floor is the psychiatry unit where I work as Baycrest’s storyteller-in-residence, hosting storytelling sessions twice a week.
One day we were talking about the idea of sanctuary. At some point the discussion opened into memories of places where the people in the group felt at peace. People spoke about being in their bedrooms with the doors closed, others about being in their bedrooms with their doors open. They spoke about listening to the ocean, being at their cottage, meditating in a city park. Then someone mentioned birds and butterflies. One man had once learned to whistle many bird songs. He gave an example, and the room quieted with wonder. Someone else spoke about the squirrels who counted on the bagels he fed them every morning. Others, of walking in the ravines when they needed to feel at peace. Then E. told a story. “I like to listen to the Blue Jays,” he began, “but the reception isn’t very good on my farm.” He meant the baseball team, not the birds. He had purchased a 250 acre farm near Bancroft, and it was his getaway from his high-powered city life. He liked baseball, and loved to listen to the Blue Jays games on the radio. The only place he got reasonable reception was in a clearing on the property. One day he was out there trying to catch a game when he noticed a Monarch butterfly alighting on a nearby tree. He decided to speak to the butterfly. He indicated his knee and said, “I’d like you to join me. You can land right here. It’s as safe as you’d want it to be.” Nothing happened. He spoke again, and again the butterfly stayed on its perch. But the third time he invited it, the butterfly spread its fine orange and black wings and fluttered over and landed on his right knee.
The story hit home. Everyone on the 4th floor is seeking a sanctuary where they, too, can be as safe as they need to be. The story was followed, as often happens, by a thoughtful, unhurried silence. Then the hour was up, the psychiatric social worker came in to lead a meeting, and I left the room.
When I first met him, E. was habitually and deeply silent, sunken and suppressed by the undertow of sorrow. The Occupational Therapist who invites me into the group told me afterwards this was the most he had spoken since coming for treatment. He must have heard and responded to something in the stories that had gone around that day, and it became the welcome he needed to give utterance to his remarkable tale.
When people leave the program after their four months of treatment, do the story-seeds keep growing into their real lives? I hope that E., like the others, will return to his life outside of the hospital with a newfound spark of possibility. Whatever happens next, this heroic, articulate man, knocked utterly flat by illness, has now remembered a time when he could speak to a butterfly, and that the butterfly listened. And this wondrous ability to communicate beyond the customary bandwidth of human understanding just may hold a clue for the future, not only for the Baycrest patients but for all of us. For if a human being has even once in his life spoken the language of butterflies – those fragile, unlikely masters of transformation and long journeys – perhaps he can slowly regain the ability to imagine for himself a new story of hope and change.