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Story and photo by Donna Mitchell
Linda Foster has blue eyes that twinkle and a ready, friendly smile. She’s the sort of person who will chat if you want to chat and who won’t if you don’t. It’s one of her ways of paying attention.
Linda has other ways of paying attention, too. She appreciates the children who come in a group to give out Christmas cards every year at Williston Rehabilitation & Nursing Center and so she gets them a thank-you card and passes it around to fellow residents to sign. She does the same for Activity Director Miss Penny’s birthday and for people who are sick and need encouragement.
She is so clearly both at ease and attuned to the people around her that it is hard to imagine her otherwise, but when she describes her mid-2007 move to the nursing home, she confesses, “It was scary to come here. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t want to come.”
Fortunately for Linda, sitting in the lobby that June day in 2007 was the center’s beloved Resident Council President, the late Barbara Gordon. Barbara was famous for her friendliness.
“Miss Barbara got to talking to me, and pretty soon she had me traveling all over the place. I got to meet other people. She and I, we’d go to the store for people.” Linda pauses and smiles, and we silently reflect on the warmth and energy that Barbara shed on our lives, and on the lives of many others.
Barbara’s spirit has continued to shine with particular brightness in Linda who, like Barbara, has not had an easy life. Like Barbara, she doesn’t make a big deal of the hard times she’s faced, but if you want to get to know her, she’ll tell you in a matter-of-fact way what her circumstances have been. But she’ll tell you gradually and she’ll only tell you a little.
She’ll tell you she’s originally from Miami, that she was born in 1956 and went to Hialeah High, that she continued to live in Miami after she married and had two children, and that she moved to Citra after her husband died in 2005. It’s only after outlining this part of her background that she mentions any health problems.
Linda explains that she moved to Citra to live with her brother and sister-in-law because she needed help. “I was in the wheelchair again due to surgeries,” she says. Then after pausing for a moment, she goes back to 1956.
“I was born with cerebral palsy, I was in a wheelchair till I was 9 years old.” She says this as if it were no more remarkable than being born with blonde hair that got darker when she got older.
“My dad built me parallel bars, and I practiced walking on them every day until I could move to crutches,” she continues in that no-big-deal tone. “Out of the six kids, I was the only one with CP.” She reflects for a moment, then adds, “One thing I promised my parents is that I’d keep trying to get up and walk.”
In therapy at WRNC after recent back surgery, Linda works on the parallel bars. “If I can get my balance back, I can be on a walker. My dream is to be on my feet again and stay out of the wheelchair, to be on crutches or a walker. My handicap might get worse, but right now I am progressing. I encourage people if they come here, don’t give up.”
Turning away from her own story, Linda adds, “People think they’re here [at the nursing center] to pass away, and I tell them that’s not true, you’ve got to keep dreaming and follow your dreams.”
In keeping with this spirit, Linda is a charter member of Williston Rehab’s recently formed WADY! Club. According to Linda, club members “go around, introduce ourselves, and try to make newcomers feel at home. We get them to Bingo or other activities they like so they don’t sit in their rooms and dwell on what happened.” Members of the WADY! Club are also planning to participate in community events and want the world to know that they are living by the words behind the Club’s initials: We Aren’t Dead Yet!
Linda maintains close ties with her family, talking on the phone every day to her son and daughter and to a sister in Waycross. “For me, the cell phone is a blessing, everyone lives so far away.”
In addition to family support, Linda thinks a good attitude is important. “People around here cheer me up and I cheer them up,” she says. “This home’s a blessing because of the people. The people care, you know. The staff, the CNAs, the nurses, just everyone here. It’s like a big family here.”
We’ve been sitting on the front porch talking as people come and go: residents, visitors, staff members. Even as we speak, Linda is aware of each person who passes and whether they’d welcome a greeting. If they want one, they get one, if they don’t, they don’t.
As our conversation comes to a close, she says, “If I had to pick a place, this is the place I’d pick if I had to stay. If you come here and give up, then your life is over. I don’t look at it that way. It can be a beginning. Do what you can do. Don’t give up.”
If you are someone who would like to chat with Linda, she’d probably like to chat with you. This can be arranged by calling WRNC’s Activities Director, Penny Moore, or Director of Social Services, Carmen Wagner, or at 352 528 3561. Williston Rehabilitation and Nursing Center is located at 300 NW 1st Avenue behind Hardee’s.
Linda Foster was photographed by Donna Mitchell, who also interviewed her and wrote this article. Donna is the Community Liaison for Williston Rehabilitation and Nursing Center as well as Parklands Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Gainesville; she also serves on the board of Friends Across the Ages (AcrossTheAges.org), a Gainesville organization whose volunteers make friends with people living in nursing homes.