“My nickname was Chef, which is funny because I never even worked in a kitchen!” Elvis laughs as he tells me about his past reputation as a cook. He’s been giving me recipes for traditional Jamaican rice and peas and chicken. He’s also been teaching me Patois here and there when he’s not giving me the news on everyone else he lives with at the infirmary. Infirmaries here in Jamaica are poor houses, government- funded homes for those with mental/physical disabilities who don’t always have family to look after them. Elvis has been living here for over 20 years, ever since he became paralyzed when he was 18 years old. Still he maintains high spirits and a sharp mind. He’s easy to talk to, and he even gives me advice on what topics to bring up with the other men there. Every time I visit he is telling me something new, giving me life advice or a new recipe. Not only am I excited to learn, but I love seeing how happy it makes him to be able to teach me something new.
That’s probably been the biggest challenge I’ve faced when it comes to service, letting others be the ones to teach, and in doing so serve, me. I’ve learned that sometimes the most meaningful thing you can do is to be present to someone. Everyone likes to feel needed at times, and asking Elvis for cooking tips makes him feel important, reminds him that there are things that only he can teach me. (On top of that, I really do need help in the kitchen, and he has yet to give me any recipe that hasn’t been delicious.)
I’ve also learned that service can come in the silence. When I finish visiting everyone in the male ward I make my way over to the female ward, but I stop about halfway and sit down next to Pauline. She’s a bit older than Elvis and a woman of few words. Every time I greet her she looks at me delightedly and says “Oh, you remember my name!” as though I’d ever forgotten it. We talk for a few minutes but after the initial small talk she goes quiet and stares off into the beautiful mountainous landscape before us. Sometimes we speak more but usually she prefers the silence, and I don’t mind it either. We just sit together, and even though we don’t talk, we still enjoy each other’s presence. At the end of all our visits, Pauline asks me when I’ll be coming back to visit again, and it’s then that I know that she’s enjoyed my company just as much as I’ve enjoyed hers.