While driving through the country, I came upon a barn. It was very old and falling down and looked sad to me. I frowned as I looked at it thinking, “Poor, poor barn.” Just as I turned to go, the barn spoke, “Don’t do that. Don’t look at me with such disappointing eyes. You know nothing about me, silly man.”
I looked around, certain someone was hiding in the shadows and playing a joke but there was no one there—just the shambles of the weathered barn.
I can’t tell you why but I smiled in that instant and decided to play along saying out loud, “OK Mr. Barn, what don’t I know?” The barn responded, “You see me only as I am today but imagine for a moment what I was before—big, strong. I protected animals under this roof. Children used to play in the hay in my loft. I saw so many baby cows brought into this world not three feet from where you are standing now. I was a great barn once.”
Before I could speak, the barn continued, “The boy who grew up on the farm that used to be here kissed his very first girl by the light of a lantern right here 53 years ago. I did great things, saw great things. So spare me your sad glances, please. “
I was quiet for a moment and then started to see the barn’s point. What I was looking at today was a lie, a small final chapter in a great and complex story. This barn was young and strong once long ago.
Just then I heard rustling in a thatch of hay near my feet and saw a bunny with three tiny babies moving about. Up above, I noticed birds’ nests in the crooked beams of the failing structure—one of them filled with hatchlings only a few days’ old. They were calling to their mother. I realized in that instant that this old barn, now more on its knees than standing, still had purpose even in this diminished state. Still hanging on, refusing to fall.
Finally I spoke, “You’re right, Mr. Barn. I was wrong; I only saw you as you are now. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Sorry….” At the Shady Acres Nursing Home, a middle-aged woman asked her teen-age son, “What did your grandfather just say?” The boy just stared at his “Pa,” the man who taught him to swim, fish and skip stones years earlier, and said, “He mumbled something about an old barn and said he was sorry. I couldn’t follow it, mom. He seems out of it today.”
The boy then noticed his grandfather was looking out the window at something so he moved closer and looked, too. Across the road from the nursing home was a big field that used to be a farm. Tumbleweeds had their way with it now. Yet up on the hill was the one thing that told the story of what once was. An old barn fighting time and, like the old man now staring at it, hoping others could see beyond the broken pieces of today to the beauty, strength and purpose that used to be. The boy now understood what his grandfather was saying.
When the boy left the nursing home, he asked his mom to wait while he snapped a photo of the old barn. “Why do you want a picture of that?” she asked. The boy didn’t respond; he just looked back toward the nursing home and his grandpa’s window and smiled.
One year later the old man died. There was a funeral and speeches and kind words about a life well lived. The following morning a plate of cookies was dropped off at the nursing home to say thank you to the staff for their years of care for the old man, along with a single framed photo delivered by a teen-age boy. The woman running the home looked at it and grinned saying, “I know just the place for this.”
If you stop by Shady Acres, you’ll find it hanging in the foyer, greeting every guest as they walk through the doors to visit the seniors who call this place their home. It’s a photo of an old falling down barn with a brief stanza below that reads: “Cast not your gaze on what you see but what I used to be. This weathered shell has stood the storm, with grace and love and glee. “I once was strong, useful, beautiful and will be once more. When I break the chains of this tattered shell and knock on heaven’s door.”
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Right now, as you are reading this there are nearly 1 million 400 thousand seniors living in nursing homes in America. That is 1 million 400 thousand souls with stories to tell. Try to look beyond the wrinkles and fading hair to the person they used to be and the person they still are. Don’t dismiss them so easily. Even an old barn has pride and purpose.