Anyone who sees Rosa Yokopenic gliding through the halls of the ELCA-affiliated Josephine Caring Community in Stanwood, Wash., will notice her holding two objects she never wants to lose.

The first is a red glass heart containing her husband’s remains. The second is Call Me Rosa, a collection of her remembrances that she enjoys sharing—even more now that those recollections are fading from her mind.

“All I have are my memories, and now I’m losing those,” Yokopenic told Eileen Burdick, Josephine’s spiritual care director. Her words inspired Burdick to develop the Wisdom & Stories Initiative, funded by a grant from the Northwest Washington Synod, with the goal of publishing a hardcover autobiographical sketch for each of its 43 residents. The initiative, which launched in January, will publish copies for all the residents profiled, their families and the staff at Josephine Caring Community.

Burdick recruited writers, including Irina VanPatten and Allen Boivin-Brown, who volunteered to interview residents with dementia and write their stories. Some pairs met through Zoom because of COVID-19 concerns, whereas others donned personal protective equipment and met in person.

“She is seen, heard and transformed through those items, beyond her physical limitations and illness.”

“We didn’t know what we’d get, and that was part of the excitement,” Burdick said. “We said to capture their stories and their memories—which may or may not be true—and to not get too hung up on the facts but to capture what their truth is. Also, we wanted to capture their wisdom, which is, I guess, the secular word for faith.”

The writers created an internal support group, which Boivin-Brown appreciated. After his first interview with his resident, Greg Tutmark, he listened to the recording and felt he wasn’t tuning in to
key moments as well as he had hoped.

“But then I decided, just follow whatever his lead is, whatever he’s saying,” he recalled. “About the third time we met, I got more comfortable with his style.”

One piece of wisdom that stuck with Boivin-Brown was when Tutmark said he had three promises he tried to keep with everyone he met: “I will always do my best to live up to your expectations of me; I will love you; and I will not lie to you.”

That inspired the title for Tutmark’s book, Three Promises. The book, Boivin-Brown explained, follows the way Tutmark spoke: he’d start on one topic, which would branch out into different directions, and then start on a new topic.

A project of transformation

For VanPatten, who met her resident, Diana Greso, through Zoom, the process was similar. Some of her favorite moments came when they were just chatting.

“Out of the blue, she said, ‘I hate chocolate,’ and I told her I loved it, and she said, ‘Then we’ll have nothing to talk about,’” VanPatten recalled with a laugh. “And then she’d forget it and we’d just move on.”

What mattered in the project, VanPatten said, wasn’t that some of the facts Greso shared were incorrect (including the number of children she had and their names) but that she was happy.

“She’d talk about her hats, and she’d sing to me ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider,’” VanPatten said. “Her daughter told me later that she loved to sing and to perform even though she was a bit of an introvert.”

VanPatten tried to frame the story as an observation, watching a fun woman enjoy life, even though Greso couldn’t recall many details. She died around the time the book was finished, but her daughter expressed to Burdick her gratitude for it.

VanPatten was also grateful for the experience, in part because it gave her a break from personal issues: a native of Moldova, she has family there and in Ukraine and Russia. She was scheduled to start the writing project around the time Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.

“When they called to set it up … I was totally, emotionally, in a different space,” VanPatten said. “But then we started talking, and [Greso] was quirky and funny, and it was so heartwarming. It gave me a perspective that everything is just temporary.”

Blessings for all

Burdick believes the connections made through the Wisdom & Stories Initiative blessed not only those interviewed and their families but the writers as well.

“This little project is one of transformation,” she said. “Transformation is what I see in Rosa’s smile as she tenderly holds her book and heart. She is seen, heard and transformed through those items, beyond her physical limitations and illness.

“Transformation is what I see in Irina’s and Allen’s personal reasons for why they became involved in the endeavor and how the project has changed them. The transformations speak to the power of God’s persistent love and grace for all humanity.”

Jeff Favre
Favre is an assistant professor at Pierce College in Los Angeles and a frequent contributor to Living Lutheran.

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