2001-05-12 / Columnists

From the G-Man by Gary G. Toms The Irish Eyes of Jimmy O’Reilly

From the G-Man by Gary G. Toms
The Irish Eyes of Jimmy O’Reilly

Hey people! I’m going to do something a little different with my column this week. Instead of issuing strong commentary or a literary attack against snobs who dislike op-ed columnists, I want to honor the memory of a man I became very close to during my high school tenure. Mr. Jimmy O’Reilly, this is for you.

It seems like it was yesterday when I graduated from Far Rockaway High School. The class of ’81 was a very special class, and it was the year that the high school took the title of "High School of the Year". The school received the award because of high academic achievements by the majority of our graduating class and exceptional career oriented programs that had been developed. The New York State Health Assisting Program was one of them.

Ms. Barbara Jackson, R.N., and an extraordinary human being, was the director of the program, and the course offered training in the nursing and medical assistant fields. If I’m not mistaken, the course is still in progress to date. However, Ms. Jackson retired from the program some time ago. This program offered me a glimpse of what the medical profession was all about.

I started at the beginning of the school year in 1977. As part of the program, we would be trained to perform certain medical procedures, such as taking blood pressure, height and weight measurement and testing blood sugar levels. During the course of the school week, we would be assigned to the Queens Nassau and Surfside Nursing Homes, in Far Rockaway, to assist in the care of patients. It was one of the most rewarding periods of my life. It ranked right up there with my role as Borough commander for the Queens chapter of the Guardian Angels. What made my experience at Surfside Nursing Home even more memorable was my relationship with an elderly Irishman by the name of Jimmy O’Reilly.

The program stipulated that we had to maintain a journal on the patients we cared for and how we assisted them during our visits. When I was assigned to "Jim-Jim", as I lovingly referred to him, I did not know what to expect. I was taught that certain patients have certain temperaments, and we had to deal with them in a professional manner, even if they went as far as to spit on us. The image of someone hurling a phlegm ball at me was very discouraging, but I forged ahead. To this day, I consider that decision a blessing.

"Jim-Jim" was 85 years old, balding, extremely frail and blind. The first time I walked into his room, I saw him sitting in what the nurses had described as his favorite chair. He was leaning toward his right side, as he always did, due to his frail condition. His mouth was open just enough to view a small portion of his tongue, and he trembled slightly. At that moment, something happened to me that changed my life. I felt an intense need to care for this man. It was the same feeling that made me join the Guardian Angels, and I knew I would become his young guardian angel.

In the weeks that passed, I looked forward to spending time with him, and I anxiously jotted down the particulars of what we did that day in my journal. I would try to teach him the words to "Rapper’s Delight", by the Sugar Hill Gang, and he would counter by singing an old Irish hymn. I relished these sessions because the nursing staff, and Ms. Jackson, had stated, "He doesn’t talk to anyone! He’s always quiet!" Despite this fact, we shared some very funny moments. Conversations were difficult at times because he was often disoriented, and he would forget what he was going to say most of the time. I know this bothered him a lot, and I could see the frustration and sadness in his eyes whenever it happened. I always made it a point to smile and touch his hand whenever it did.

There were many times when he would mention wonders of Ireland, but he never mentioned what part he was from. That’s still a mystery to me. I know he loved growing up there and missed it a great deal. Although our communicating was difficult, I got close enough to notice that when it rained, he would sit by the window to listen. A tear would always fall from his left eye. I wanted to ask him why he cried when the heavens opened up, but something told me not to. I don’t know why, but I always felt it had something to do with a long lost love. This too is a mystery to me.

The months were passing quickly, and sessions with "Jim-Jim" were becoming a crucial part of my life. It was getting to the point that I would go by the nursing home outside of school hours just to check on him. The nurses were always accommodating, and I was happy if I just got to see him for a quick minute. This was about to change.

It was nearing the end of the school year, and we would have to submit our journals to Ms. Jackson for review. I was excited about the relationship I had built with this man, and I suspected that Ms. Jackson would be overjoyed as well. After all, that’s what the Health Assisting program was all about. It was the middle of the week, and I arrived at Surfside for my weekly visit. As I entered "Jim-Jim’s" room, I noticed that his bed was empty and had no sheets on it. I assumed that maybe he took ill and had to be rushed to the hospital. I inquired about his whereabouts, but the nurses were vague in their answers. I turned to head back to the room, and I saw Ms. Jackson approaching me. I started to tremble, and I could not stop. I asked her where Jimmy was, and in a calm, warm, almost motherly tone she said, "He died last night Gary." At that point, I walked back into his room. I took a deep breath to see if I could still smell a trace of the ointment the nurses would place on his wounds. I knelt down by his favorite chair, and I started to cry. At times, I still cry.

Twenty-three years later, now that I have a better understanding of human relationships, I realize that Jimmy O’Reilly had an enormous impact on my life. I often asked myself if he had not been blind, would we have been as close? If he could’ve seen this Black skin, would he have shared as much about his culture and homeland? When you grow up seeing the Ku Klux Klan march through your town, or seeing Black people brutalized in history books and during the civil rights period, you can’t help but question the mindset of those who even appear to be white.

As I stood in front of the Surfside Nursing Home a few weeks ago, reminiscing about him, I was finally able to answer those questions. It would not have mattered at all because we needed each other. He needed me to connect to someone as his final days approached, and I needed him to help shape me into becoming a sensitive, loving and compassionate man. I was fifteen at the time, and instilling these attributes at such a young age played a major role in my development.

My relationship with "Jim-Jim" showed me that the only boundaries that exist between people are those that are deliberately placed because of fear and ignorance. We all will die someday, and if the race of the person with you at that moment doesn’t matter, because no one wants to die alone, it should not matter as much in our daily lives. We all need each other in some way, shape or form. Thank you for teaching me that "Jim-Jim". God rest your soul, forever.

See you next week.

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