‘Hello in there, hello’

Father Mark Goldasich is the pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Tonganoxie. He has been editor of the Leaven since 1989.

by Father Mark Goldasich

Why do I keep listening to this song? Every time I hear its melancholy lyrics and haunting melody, it tears me up.

The song is “Hello In There.” Although written and originally sung by John Prine, I prefer Bette Midler’s version on her “Jackpot — The Best Bette” album.

It’s about growing old, when the kids have moved away. The chorus goes like this: “You know that old trees just grow stronger/And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day/But old people just grow lonesome/Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’”

The last verse says: “So if you’re walking down the street sometime/And you should spot some hollow ancient eyes/Don’t you pass ‘em by and stare/As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello.” (Pardon me while I reach for a box of Kleenex.)

The song reminds us, with the holiday season approaching, not to forget the aging and the homebound. Sometimes, even when the elderly are included in family celebrations, they’re often relegated to a neglected corner while life hustles and bustles around them.

The following German folktale puts things into perspective.

A couple lived with their only son in a modest house. Though not rich, they lived a comfortable and happy life.

Eventually, the man’s father moved in with them. The old grandfather’s eyes had grown dim, his ears nearly deaf, and his hands shook. When he ate, he was unable to hold his spoon without spilling food on the tablecloth and floor. Often, bits of food would run out of his mouth, soiling his clothing. After discussing this irritating behavior, the couple decided to set a table for the grandfather in a corner of the kitchen. As he ate, he looked sadly at his family. Whenever he spilled his food, he sobbed.

One day, the old man’s hands could no longer hold the glass bowl and it fell to the floor, breaking into a dozen pieces. The woman scolded him and went to the market to buy a wooden bowl for the grandfather. As the days passed, the old man said very little as he sat in his corner eating out of his wooden bowl.

Late in the fall, the father came home to find his son sitting in the middle of the floor, carving a block of wood. “What are you making?” asked the father.

“It’s a present for you and Mommy,” answered the child. “I’m carving two wooden bowls so that you’ll have something to eat from when you live with me in your old age.”

The couple looked at each other for a long time and began to weep. That evening, they moved the grandfather back to the family table. From that day on, he always ate with them, and they said nothing even when he spilled his food. (Adapted from William R. White’s “Stories for Telling.”)

This somber tale reminds us to put ourselves in the shoes of our elderly. Like it or not, one day we’ll all be in their place. How would we want to be treated?

Sometimes, we neglect the elderly because it reminds us of our own fears of aging or we feel clumsy interacting with them. Author Paula Spencer Scott offers these practical tips:

  • Remember that it’s not about you. Set aside personal discomfort and see your visit as a present to the elderly person.
  • Focus on the person inside. Though their body may have changed considerably, the person is still there. Speak slowly and distinctly and sit so that you can visit at eye level.
  • Bring some props — like old photos, family videos on a tablet or even candy or cards.
  • Be patient if the person repeats things. These are memories that have touched their lives. Let them touch yours.

Most importantly, smile often and give warm hugs. These are the best ways to say, “hello in there, hello” and remind our elderly of how deeply loved they are.

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