I walked in to the dining hall and found my hospice friend sitting slumped over in her wheelchair. I kneeled down and gently touched her shoulder to say, “hello.” She barely looked up and then said, “You haven’t come.” She didn’t want to talk. She was mad at me. I tried to explain that my children had been sick and that I did not want to spread any germs to her. But she didn’t want to hear my explanation. Today was not a good day for her. I understood. I positioned her blanket more comfortably. I asked her if I could read her card to her. I got her a Kleenex and itched her nose for her. I tried my best to sneak past her frustration with me.
It didn’t work.
She rested her head down. She slept. She didn’t want to go back to her room. I began talking with her neighbor. Everyone at the table held a stack of stapled papers. I looked through the nine pages. Oh, it was a sermon to follow along with.
“It’s too long. They talk too fast,” one woman said. I agreed.
When you come preaching to the rehab and memory care unit, perhaps you should remember to keep it short and simple. Less than nine pages. Better yet, you may want to sit down and get to know those you come preaching to. Sometimes, we may want to be fixed and sometimes we want to be seen, heard and understood. Listening may be the best sermon you can give.
I suppose that not everybody understands what it feels like to lose all control. To be stuck in a place. To rely on others to move you, feed you, and get you to the bathroom. Not everybody understands what it feels like to be physically and emotionally isolated, angry, and confused. Unfortunately, not everybody has easy access to an imagination that will help them better understand.
I’ve been the one in the wheelchair. And the hospital bed. The shower with assistance. And in the bathroom with an audience of nurses, care assistants, and family. I’ve been connected to IV poles, pain pumps, drains, etc. I’ve been completely stuck. Trapped. Alone in a crowded place.
I’ve been the angry one. And so I’ve learned to not take it personally when patients express anger, frustration, or other emotions to me. I don’t expect an apology. Please, don’t. I sit. I wait. And I will leave if you would like to use a tiny bit of your dwindling supply of control over me. I will come back again.
As Shrek says, “Better out than in.” It’s a million times better that a person would feel comfortable telling me or showing me how they feel. Anger can be an overprotective big sister to sadness, loss, inadequacy, and so many other emotions and feelings. I will be much more hurt if you fake an emotion with me. I think it’s truly an honor to be a bumper, a cushion, a landing place or even a temporary target. I feel that its a privilege, the highest honor to help carry another’s emotional and physical burdens.
My husband asked me, “Do you ever just want to leave when she treats you that way?” No, well maybe, but I don’t. I know she loves me. We all have difficult days. I don’t take her anger personally.
I listened to a woman who needed to talk today. She was not the woman that I came to visit, but she may have needed a companion just as much or more than my friend. She talked and talked and counted her pills over and over again. She asked me questions and told me stories. I’ve talked with her and helped her before. But she doesn’t remember me. Or maybe she does.
Maybe she remembers that I will listen to her. And that I will answer her questions without frustration or annoyance in my tone or eyes. Maybe she remembers that she can tell me she is lost. Or confused. Maybe she knows I will laugh with her about lengthy sermons and the lunch menu. Maybe she knows that I will also help her.
The worlds of senior care and the worlds of pediatrics are not that different. Kindness, compassion, patience, love and your consistent presence will help you navigate both worlds. You should and you will most likely feel sadness, pain, helplessness and loss of control through the eyes and experiences of the patients and families in both worlds. But that doesn’t mean that you should not go back. It means that you must go back. When people stop caring, feeling, empathizing, and helping, this world will be far too dark. A hopeless place.
If you’re not hurting for the wounded, broken, helpless, confused, and isolated, perhaps you are numb. Or perhaps you have over-insulated yourself from the world. May we all find a way to push through the many layers of comfort to find the uncomfortable. Somebody needs you to see them, hear them, and sit with them.
Don’t be offended if you’re not the best thing they’ve ever met since sliced bread. Keep sticking around. Soon, you may proudly be introduced as a friend. Or mistaken for family. Soon, you will hear, “thank you for visiting with me. Can I come visit you, too?” You will walk out of the place with a heavy, yet full heart. You will discover a new kind of insulation that keeps you warm: an internal insulation provided by those you sat with, listened to, heard and understood. Those you loved and helped. And those who loved and helped you, too.
“We are all in the same damn leaky boat together.”-quote from one of my hospice friends