When I walk into a patient’s room, on those two days a week when I volunteer at the hospital, I always smile and look into their eyes. I introduce myself and I quickly establish if practical help is needed, if a nurse has to get involved or if it’s just company someone is after. Or nothing at all. My baby pink clogs are often a conversation starter. Sometimes we talk about books. Or the news. Many want to know about me: how long I have been volunteering, do I like it. Some think I am a doctor, maybe because I am older, but not too old – just the right age you would want your doctor to be.
“I am not a doctor, I am a volunteer.”
“But you do look like a doctor” the woman insisted. I thought it was funny. Maybe I missed my calling.
Sometimes I take patients for a walk. I trail behind their slow steps, pushing the iv pump that is dispensing whatever infusion. There is this spot where I like to end the walk: two armchairs and a coffee table right next to a picture window where we can sit, look out at the view and bask in the sun. I get iced water and we can pretend it’s cocktail hour. Intimacy with a stranger can happen quickly.
In that spot, I have become the repository of their stories and I realize how ill equipped women are at being burdens. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the people you love most what is going on in your head, for fear of the truth becoming a burden to the spouse, mother, children. It’s easier to tell me, someone they met last week or in the last hour.
The woman with five children who was worried about her family not managing with the laundry. Because she is the one who always did it. Dealing with a deadly disease, she is thinking about the laundry and I don’t blame her. It’s a delicate balance between focussing on what can be controlled and what is hard to fathom.
Sometimes I mumble words of encouragement, sometimes I commiserate. Sometimes I cheer them on and congratulate their progress. I never offer suggestions or advice, not even when they ask. I never offer friendship, not even when they hint at the possibility of getting together. Outside. In the other world. Not only am I legally prevented from it but I cannot open my life to their sadness.
Since I went through my cancer, a different understanding pervades these exchanges. I know their offering of their unvarnished, detailed and sometimes intimate stories is a coping mechanism to make sense of what is happening to them, to create some order. Because they are women, and they are used to giving and never taking too much, they always want to know about me. I give them what I can. I know it’s not the details of my life they are after but a frame for their pain.
Sometimes, not often, I will enquire with the staff what became of a certain patient. Sometimes they die.
And sometimes they stay with me longer than they should. I always leave the hospital cheerful, what I did and saw and heard safely behind. Nothing makes it to my car. Although sometimes I will come home and a face will appear, a thought will wander towards someone I met. When that happens, I will make a point of unfurling my mat at the end of the day and offer my practice or my meditation to the person who followed me home. I wish her well and I let her go.
To empty myself is the only way to be ready to receive more. Next time.