"And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him."

- Luke 22:43

I have spent a lot of time in skilled-care facilities lately, visiting loved ones.

Irma can usually be found clutching a baby doll with all the love and care she would provide the living, breathing baby she never had. She gently strokes his face and smooths out the wrinkles in his nightshirt, over and over again. Irma speaks softly to her baby, but never once does the string of words create a meaningful sentence, although it is carefully punctuated with inflection and expression to suit the mood.

On a good day, Irma may smile when I greet and hug her. She knew me as her favorite niece since I was 4 years old, but I'm a stranger to her now. Sometimes, when we gaze into each other's eyes, I sense a slight glimmer of recognition, but it is a fleeting and fragile connection, one quite possibly only in my imagination.

The most important people in Irma's life today are the caregivers in her skilled nursing facility. They anticipate her every need, guarding against infections, falls, fear, discomforts, hunger. They curl her hair, choose earrings to match her outfits, and on it goes.

It's hard to visualize the Irma of her younger years. Movie-star beauty in a bathing suit on the beach, she always had a smile on her face and a kind word in lively conversation. Her gifts for family members were chosen with the utmost care and thought. Irma was the ultimate hostess, with flawlessly prepared, delicious meals, served on china and surrounded by shining sterling silver, in a home that defied disorder. All of those things are firmly rooted in the far reaches of her mind in a past that exists nowhere for her.

Then there is Robert. Close friends for many years, Robert and I had not seen each other for quite a while. I heard he was rehabilitating from a fall due to advancing Parkinson's disease - "the gift that keeps on taking," he calls it - and a subsequent lengthy bout with pneumonia.

I signed in at the desk and was told that Robert was waiting in the hallway to see me. I turned down the hallway and was surprised to see only two ladies and a man, all in wheelchairs. But I didn't see my friend.

I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings, so I walked over and gave the only man there a hug. "Hi, Robert," I said, trying to sound friendly to this fragile, sweet shell of man, a delicate whisper of humanity. When I looked into his eyes, the only thing about him that wasn't deteriorated, I realized my mistake. This was my friend Robert. And I later learned that he had packed up and prepared himself for me to sign him out and take him home - though anyone would question this prospect.

The prison of Parkinson's has locked Robert out of his former active world. The inability to swallow keeps him from eating virtually every food he ever enjoyed and anything that is not pureed. The thief that is Parkinson's has stolen most of his voice and all of the choice in his life. He struggles daily just to take steps with a walker, or utter an audible sentence, but Robert was once a dynamic man who built his own television set and designed some of the first computer programs. He raised his children on his own and drove across the United States and back again. He was an expert on history, world affairs, and the stock market, a charmer with a quick sense of humor.

I can only hope my visits bring some comfort to Irma and Robert. Any small comfort I receive comes from the caregivers - nurses and nurses' aides, physical and occupational therapists, waitstaff. They banter, sing, feed, clean, bathe, cajole, encourage, challenge, praise, and strengthen our loved ones. They are of the legion of angels that these delicate souls need long before they ever get to heaven.