Thanks for Caring

deckNew England has been hammered with heavy snow and frigid temperatures for the past several weeks. Boston has been practically shut down and even New Hampshire, where snowy winters and subzero temperatures are common, has been challenged by the relentless cold and drifting snow.

After the fourth blizzard in as many weekends, I woke Monday morning and checked the news for the  temperature.  It was five below zero with wind chills at least four times as cold.  After a hot shower and two cups of coffee, I layered a scarf under my coat, pulled on my boots and trudged through the snow to my car.   It reluctantly but thankfully started, and shivering all the while, I drove to work.  The parking lot at work looked like something from a science fiction movie, with twelve-foot snowbanks and snow-covered paths.   Trying to ignore the wind that bit at my face, I locked my car and hurried into the shelter of the building, where I bumped into the smiling face of one of my coworkers.

He is a favorite of almost every employee where I work.  He is in his early twenties, with spiky red hair and a perpetual grin.  He comes from Project Search, a program that places high school graduates with developmental challenges in the workplace.  He has been at my workplace for several years, and often stops at my office to chat. He tells me his favorite video games and the movies he’s watched over the weekend.  He asks my favorite football team and laughs at me when I admit to not knowing how a fantasy team works.  I know he usually walks to work and back, even though he lives a couple of miles away.

“Are you walking home today?” I asked, concerned about the subzero wind chill.

“Nope.”  My dad drove me here and he’s picking me up.”  He replied.

“Great.  Have a good day,” I smiled, and started for the elevator.

Right before the door closed, I heard his voice, “Thanks for caring.”

Thanks for caring.

I’ve thought about this all week.   How often do we say thanks for caring?  How often does someone say it to us?  And, is caring such an anomaly that it deserves special recognition?

It was by watching my mother that I learned that acts of caring are generally free, but their value is more precious than gold.  She was one of the most caring people I have ever met.  She checked in on the neighbors during storms.  She baked bread and mended clothes for people at work.  It was a rare dinner when there was not an extra place set for a visitor. And she was never too busy to offer coffee and sympathy to someone who was sad, or hurt or just needed an ear.  She always took time for a hug.  She never walked past a stranger without smiling a hello.  She stayed up late when her eyes were heavy with fatigue to finish sewing a costume or a dress that was needed the next morning.

When she became ill, Mom gave me a list of people to contact for her.  She asked me to write letters she was too weak to write by herself. They were letters of kindness that expressed her regret of a moment of carelessness, a word of encouragement, a gentle and final farewell.  And the night she passed away, she took a long look at me and said, “I’m worried about you.”

“Me?  Why?  I’m fine!” I replied, hiding the fear that the lump in my throat would choke the very life from me.

“You’re all alone,” she stated, her eyes filling with tears.  We didn’t speak of the real truth.  Where my siblings had their elderly-handsspouses, I was divorced.  Alone.  She knew she wouldn’t be there to comfort me, to guide me, to help me bear the sorrow in the days to come.

“I’m fine,” I lied.  “I have wonderful family and friends.  I’m never alone.”

Her gaze relaxed and she smiled.  Releasing her from her responsibility was the last gift I could give her.

You taught me well, Mom.  Thanks for caring.

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The Star

When I was a little girl, I wondered where the stars went on rainy nights.  I thought there was some kind of weather switch that turned on their lights when the skies were clear, and shut them off when drops of rain pattered against the window of my upstairs bedroom.  I remember being quite surprised when I realized that the stars remained where they were, but were just temporarily blocked by the churning clouds that brought rain and snow.

Last week, I was reminded of this as I watched my brother Kevin.  I was at the hospital with my mother when he strode in.  Kevin is hard to miss.  He is huge- 6’5”, with large shoulders, huge hands and a huger smile.  When he arrived, I had just begun to give my mother a sponge bath, and rather than staying outside until we were finished, he rolled up his sleeves to help.

I watched as my younger brother gently and carefully helped bathe and dry my mother, and as he brought her to the bathroom and back.  She leaned on him, confident that his strength would compensate for her weakness and he responded with a grace and ease that left no room for embarrassment or humiliation.  He enveloped her shaking hand in his firm one, and supported her weight as we got her settled again in her bed.

I had never seen this side of my brother.  I know his training as a firefighter/EMT has taught him how to help the sick and injured.  But I had never seen how gentle, how kind, how graceful he is.  He knew when to speak, when to smile, and when to move.  His silent strength filled the room, easing my mother’s discomfort and my anxiety.

Initially, I had been frustrated that the hospital staff had not been as responsive to my mother’s needs as I would have liked.  I know that they were doing the best they could with the staff they had, but I was angry that she had to wait so long for responses to her calls for help.  I was frustrated that nobody had taken the time to help clean her body and comb her hair.  I wanted to point out that she was not just the woman in Room 4030, but she was somebody’s mother, somebody’s teacher, somebody’s friend.

But now, I see that I was given an opportunity to see my brother at his best.  Had my mother’s needs been met by a stranger on the fourth floor, I would not have observed how my brother shines. For a brief moment, the dark was split by his light and I was privileged to witness it. I should have known all along, the star had always been there, just waiting for the clouds to part so he could fill the dark with his silver light. 

Thank you, Kevin.  You are a shining star, and I love you.

My Mother’s Hands

I have always hated my hands. Unlike the slim soft hands of most women, they are work hands- made for wringing diapers and kneading loaves of bread, like my mother’s.  Other women wear colored nail polish and sparkling jewelry to call attention to the delicacy of their hands.  They easily slip into slim leather gloves and tiny gold rings with diamonds that catch the light.  But I am embarrassed by my hands and do not call attention to them, but rather keep them hidden, even stuffed into pockets whenever possible.

Today, I helped my mother prepare for her transition to a nearby hospice house. After several days in the hospital, she was unwashed and uncombed.  Her soft curly hair was matted from lying in bed and her hospital gown was twisted and wrinkled.  Knowing how this made her feel worse, I volunteered to give her a sponge bath and she agreed.  As I gently rubbed her back with a warm wet cloth, she sighed in contentment and told me how she remembered washing her mother shortly before she died.  I felt honored to be part of this legacy of love- to be the one to carefully wipe her face and rinse her feet.  Her hands were bruised and swollen.  Afraid that her rings would become so tight they would hurt her, I soaped her hand, and in one gentle motion, slipped them from her finger to mine.

We moved her to the hospice house where angelic nurses fluttered in to welcome her to her new room. The walls were washed in sunlight and the furnishings cozy and inviting.  The sterility of the hospital was replaced soft footsteps and cheerful chatter, as the nurses worked to make her comfortable.  She smiled in relief and appreciation.

Later that evening, as we stood by her bedside, I watched her hands shakily finger her rosary beads while praying the Chaplet of Devine Mercy.  Her hospital gown had been replaced by a soft white flannel nightgown, her hair combed.  Her hands counted their way through the prayers.  The same hands that rubbed my back to put me to sleep. The same hands that braided my hair, and hemmed my dresses, and hammered nails into the wall to hang my artwork.  The same hands that wrote on the chalk board for hundreds of middle school children.  The same hands that held my father’s when he passed from this world to the next.

When I got home this evening, I took a long hot shower, letting the water wash rivers of tears down the drain.  As I dried my face, I caught a glimpse of my hands in the mirror.   The two silver rings, one filigree and the other turquoise, still were on my finger.  They fit my hands.   My hands.  Made for wringing diapers and kneading bread, and washing my mother in her final days.  They are big and strong.  And beautiful.  They are my mother’s hands.

Somebody’s Child

When my kids were in elementary school, I worked as a medical assistant in an Internal Medicine office.  I loved my work, but I was always reluctant to be around patients with communicable diseases. This was largely due to the fact that my youngest daughter, Elizabeth, had serious chronic illnesses that often landed her in the hospital.  A simple twenty-four hour stomach virus was sure to have repercussions that lasted at least a week.  It was imperative that I avoided bringing home germs that could trigger another round of illness and hospitalization.

One morning, a new patient was put into the schedule.  Her complaints were my two least favorite illnesses; vomiting and diarrhea.  I escorted her to the room, all the time silently repeating, “Just get the vital signs and get out of there!  Just get the vital signs and get out of there!”

She told me her name was Rachel Scabbard *and she had recently been discharged from the hospital.  While I wrapped the blood pressure cuff around her arm, I asked why she had been hospitalized. 

 “I ate batteries.”

“Oh great,” I thought.  “Not only is she contagious, but she eats batteries.  Just get the vital signs and get out of here!”

Rachel silently sat in the chair as I pumped the cuff.  I stole a glance at her yellowed hair and lined face.  She was in her fifties, but looked much older, probably because she was missing several teeth.

I tried to concentrate on her blood pressure,  but all I could think of was, “Just get the vital signs and get out of here!” 

As I turned the screw to release the air from the blood pressure cuff, my plan for escape was interrupted by a sudden revelation.

Rachel Scabbard was somebody’s little girl.

I thought of my own Elizabeth, painfully thin, dark circles shadowing her eyes, struggling to celebrate the innocence of a child in the world of hospitals and doctor’s offices.  I loved her more than my own life.  When her vital signs were taken, when her blood was drawn, when she was poked and manipulated, I hovered close at hand, determined to make sure she was treated in the kindest, most gentle way possible.  I stood sentry over her bed while she slept, and rocked her in my arms and sang to her when she could not.  I questioned doctors, challenged nurses, and charged through walls of rules and policies.  I did this because she was my flesh.  My child.  My little girl.

Rachel Scabbard was somebody’s little girl.

I wondered if Rachel’s mother had agonized over her child’s illness.  Had she lain awake at night like I had, wondering what she did wrong… what she could have differently to spare her little girl?  Had Rachel’s mother looked at her newborn baby girl and thought “This is the most beautiful child in the world.  I would throw myself in front of a bus for her,” the way I had?

Rachel Scabbard was somebody’s little girl.

How could I give Rachel Scabbard less than my little Elizabeth deserved?  How could I treat another mother’s child any differently than I treated my own?  How could I give her less than my kindest, most caring, best efforts?

 Rachel was a patient in that practice for years after that.  She was difficult, non compliant, and often rude.  But the gift she gave me is priceless.   In the time it takes to measure a blood pressure, my approach to health care was forever changed.  In fact, in those few moments, my approach to life was forever changed.   No longer would “just getting the vital signs and get out of here” be good enough. 

For we are all somebody’s child.

*Of course this name is fictitious, in order to protect the patient’s privacy.

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