My great-grandmother lived in a nursing home for the last fifteen years of her life. During my childhood, I would visit her once or twice a year. I was always scared of those visits. The hallways smelled of disinfectant and processed food and old people. When visitors walked past the doorways of some of the rooms, the residents would point and make noises. I didn’t understand them, and I was scared because I couldn’t speak their language.
On one of the last visits to my great-grandmother before she died at the age of one-hundred, I walked down the hall with my grandpa. Directly in front of me sat a tiny, old lady in a wheel chair. She was drooling and moaning and pointing at me. She looked at me and I looked at her. In my childish panic, I didn’t know what to do, so I did the only thing I could do – I smiled.
I will never forget that moment. Her face broke out into a thousand wrinkles, and her toothless jaw formed what was unmistakably a smile. She laughed, if you could call it a laugh, and she smiled some more. When I turned around farther down the hallway, she was still smiling.
That was the last time I was ever scared of the nursing home. The hallways still smelled and the residents in the open doorways still pointed and stared, but now we spoke the same language. We smiled.
I believe in smiling. There is no more universal form of communication. Everyone smiles. A newborn will smile at its mother as she holds it in her arms. Two strangers will smile in a crowded shopping mall. An old, toothless lady will smile at a little girl three generations younger as they pass in the nursing home hallway – and they will all understand perfectly.
A smile is painless. It is one of the most effortless gestures a person can make. It takes fourteen muscles and a few seconds too execute, yet it conveys the entire concept of friendship. A smile is contagious. It passes from person to person like the domino effect. A smile is necessary. All people want to know that others care about them, and a smile will speak to them more plainly than words. I learned that a smile can even overcome fear and bring about understanding between two people that have nothing else in common.
When in doubt, smile. What is there to lose?
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