Preface: I promised to share bits and pieces about my life to help you get to know me better and hopefully make it easier for you to understand my level of commitment to the people we serve. I have learned from a very young age that I’ve been blessed with the qualities of compassion and caring. I always say, “My path was chosen for me, I didn’t choose my path.” Maybe after a few short stories about my life, you will agree with me.
Who Am I…
In 1977, I was like any other 8-year old boy growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. My brothers, sister and I all loved sports. I had great friends and had no responsibility. I came from a large family and for most of my childhood, my parents struggled to pay the bills and keep us participating in all sorts of activities. One of those activities was our Church Youth Group. As a good Italian Catholic family, being involved in the church was important to my mom and dad.
Part of our Youth Group Service was to play bingo in the local nursing homes. In the late fall of 1977, Michael and I joined my brother Robby and sister Deanne on a trip to a large nursing home in our town. Like all church trips, we were squeezed onto a bus and forced to sing Bible hymns for the duration of the ride. It felt like a seven hour trip but in reality, it was just a twenty-five minute drive. I keep wondering how they fit so many songs into those twenty-five minutes.
I remember walking into the building and wondering why old people smell so bad. My brother Michael covered his whole face with his scarf to try and filter the odor from his nose. With all the tact of a five year old, my brother blurted, “What stinks in here? It smells like fart!” Normally such an outburst would be showered in laughter by surrounding recipients but not that day. My sister quickly smothered my brother’s scarf and covered his mouth in an effort to stop a follow-up outburst. The Youth Group Director looked at her and told her to please control him as the other leader frightfully apologized to the woman in charge. All the other kids were stunned silent. My brother Robby punched me in the arm and said, “This is a church! Shhh!” as if I was the one who said it. It was always that way -Michael and I were one in the same. We were treated as twins but we were three years apart.
After all the excitement, the older kids broke out the bingo wheel and started calling numbers. Michael and I sat in the back, not paying attention, losing interest in the whole experience. Michael suggested we take the elevator and see where it leads. I told him it would be locked because it’s only for people who work there. To my amazement, the door opened when I pushed the button and we climbed aboard.
We first went down to the basement. As we waited for the door to open, I told Michael he was going out first. Michael, nervous with anticipation, exclaimed no way! I, of course, reminded him it was his idea but like any two brothers in the throws of a great adventure, we decided to step off together. When the door opened, we both froze. The basement was dark and there were loud pounding noises blasting from the corridor. In a simultaneous leap, we slammed our hands on the button to close the door. Michael, panting in terror, said, “Let’s get out of here!” However, in our hurry to close the door, we hit the button for the second floor. As we walked off the elevator, our relief turned to pure panic. Michael grabbed my arm to pull me back to the elevator but the door had already closed. A mob of old people in wheelchairs tied to the handrails littered the hall. A constant moan and occasional screech filled our ears. The odor was even worse than the floor below.
Michael anxiously pounded on the elevator button as I tried to pull the door open. It was then that I realized an Asian lady, approximately 276 years old, was trying to get my attention. At that moment, it became a bit surreal for me. I can’t tell you I wasn’t scared because I was plenty scared but I was also curious at the same time. The woman motioned to me with tears in her eyes to come over to her. I will never forget the way she pulled at the strap that imprisoned her to the handrail. She pleaded with her eyes for my help. I told Michael she wanted me to move her and he begged me not to go. He desperately pounded on the elevator door waiting for it to open. After a long hesitation, I built up enough courage to help her. I slowly made my way to her while avoiding the desperate and saddening out stretched arms of the others, all eager for attention. I apprehensively untied the strap and slowly moved her to the area where she was pointing.
With a deep breath and a sense of accomplishment, I headed back the elevator. Just at that moment, with the speed of Mr. Miyagi himself, she grabbed my hand and forcefully began pulling it to her mouth. “Michael!” I screamed. Michael responded with an extremely loud “Oh my God!” I tried to pull my hand away but it was too late, it was going in. All I could see was the perfectly round toothless hole in the middle of a wrinkled face. How many fingers would I lose? How would I tell my mom I didn’t listen to my sister again? What if I catch old person disease? Resolved in my fate, I relaxed and watched my hand slowly make its way to her lips. She took my hand and kissed it. She released her grip and mouthed, “Thank you!”
I never forgot that day but more importantly, that day never forgot me. It’s always with me and now maybe with you, too. Each and every experience we have as we grow forms who we become. This was a big one for me and for my brother as well. I went home and shortly thereafter drew a picture of a nursing home/orphanage I would run someday. This is where it began for me.
I tried hard to suppress the deep compassion and caring I found in myself that day but it would always surface and win. I have always been compelled to do the right thing. This has been our motto since we opened. I want all of you to feel this way. You’re here because God blessed you with the gift of caring as well. Let it guide you and always try to do the right thing. And oh, as for my crazy brother Michael, he never stepped into a nursing home again and to this day believes I caught old people’s disease. Maybe he’s right…
—Jim Palazzo, CEO, Transitions Hospice