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Sometimes they linger – on the side effects of volunteering

Posted in Life & Love

Eeaster windowIt’s mostly the women who unburden themselves, telling their stories, creating a web of words like they have done since the beginning of time.

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.

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17 Comments

  1. You are like a vessel to tip all the important miscellany into. I have had the same experience with some of my more troubled students. In fact for several years when I started teaching, I would find the same three or four students sitting on my coffee table looking at me that night when I got home (No literally, of course––I’d call the cops!)

    April 13, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I can see a teacher being a vessel for the most difficult students – part cheerleader and part counsellor. One of the hardest jobs.

      April 14, 2016
      |Reply
  2. Beautiful, sensitive piece of writing.

    April 13, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Grazie Manu.

      April 14, 2016
      |Reply
  3. There are times I think of the most fascinating patients from hospice and while grateful to have made their acquaintance, am saddening by their passing. A couple in particular I think of often, so much of an impression they made on me. I’ve found that volunteering at hospitals and hospice can definitely make you think about the impact you have on patients and their impact on you. I know if you were to visit me, I’d be ever so grateful and consider myself blessed at the company. ღ

    April 13, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I am sure you and Sam would have plenty of stories to tell!

      April 14, 2016
      |Reply
  4. I was just thinking (to myself) this afternoon about how I tend to withhold certain things because I don’t want to burden others with my problems, worries and secrets. Looks like this post came at about the right time for me. Thank-you for sharing your experiences 🙂 (and beautifully written too!)

    April 12, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Typical woman that you are! Go ahead – burden people. What is their love for otherwise??

      April 13, 2016
      |Reply
  5. Beautifully written. I’ve seen volunteers helping out in hospitals, and have been helped by a couple myself – “a drink and some biscuits please, I’ve been in the ER for 8h now and haven’t eaten a thing” (something that often shocked these nice ladies, but not the medical staff, hah!) These ladies are like little oasis of light in a place that can often seem dismal. I’ve often wondered about what you wrote, who are they when they leave, what do they do with their days, and do they take these experiences with them?

    I loved your description of letting them go. It’s something I have trouble with, and I suppose that’s why I discovered I wouldn’t make a very good therapist (or volunteer for humans, I suppose). I commend you for doing this, Claudia. Don’t ever stop letting them in, and then out. That’s true balance right there.

    April 12, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Well, here we are, just regular chicks with regular lives with a bit of time to give back (although there are men too – where I volunteer, it’s mainly would be med students and would be nurses who try it out for size, some retirees and some middle aged people with time on their hands). I am not sure I would make a good therapist – I think it would be hard to listen to people’s stuff day in and day out. Sometimes I think I have taken on too much, because I have so much else to do, and I should cut down to one day, but then I never want to.

      April 13, 2016
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  6. sofagirl
    sofagirl

    Awww. Lovely Wah.

    April 12, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Thank you!

      April 13, 2016
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  7. silvia
    silvia

    One of your best post, beautiful from word number one to the last, with rythm, balance and grace. So proud of you

    April 12, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Thank you – my very first critic.

      April 13, 2016
      |Reply
  8. winston moreton
    winston moreton

    Kept thinking Clint Eastwood as one of your patients while I read this. Juxtaposition I suppose 🙂

    April 11, 2016
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    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Clint the actor or the director? I love his directing but cannot sit still through any of his westerns or Dirty Harry movies. Something wrong with me, I suppose.

      April 12, 2016
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      • winston moreton
        winston moreton

        I imagined him as a grumpy male taciturn patient. I still like the spaghetti westerns but not his support for the NRA. Wonder where he sits with grumpy Donald

        April 12, 2016
        |Reply

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