Having read this wonderful book in recent weeks, I couldn't help but recall this story in my own experience today. Taking the advice of one of my seminary professors, I asked our hospital chaplain if I could join him as he visited patients in the hospital. I felt like it would be a great learning experience as well as an important step in my continuing effort to merge my work and my ministry in the workplace. Here is my experience:
As we approached the door to this hospital room, I first observed the signs posted on the closed door of the room. Some were the typical signs one might see in the hospital such as "Fall Precautions" and "Vital Signs"; however, one sign posted over the door knob was a well written sign requesting that the door be kept closed after entering the room followed by the patients name indicating it was his request.
As we knocked and entered the room, we were greeted by pleasant black man lying in his bed. The room was very warm and when we inquired, the gentleman explained that he is cold natured and liked to keep the room warm. A thin sheet covered the mid section of his body and he was wearing the always attractive hospital gown. The TV was on, the window shades were open and newspaper was stacked on his bedside table. His legs, both abnormally large for his otherwise thin frame, were exposed displaying thick compression hose apparently used to control abnormal swelling in his legs.
The chaplain and I greeted the patient and exchanged the normal pleasantries. When asked why he was in the hospital, the gentleman explained his battle with congestive heart failure in recent years. The chaplain asked how it made him feel to struggle with CHF and the patient responded by describing how this disease made him feel much older than he really is. At the young age of 50, his symptoms often inhibit him from normal activity.
The conversation continued as we talked about his job as a yellow cab driver here in town and how much he enjoyed taking people places. The conversation took an unexpected turn, however, when the chaplain asked if the gentleman had in family nearby.
The man's head sank into his chest and he lifted his hand to cover his eyes. Not a word. And then he began to cry.
With gentle compassion, the chaplain invited the man to explain the hurt he was feeling. What followed was a sad, and yet typical story. His parents had recently died - his mom within the past 2 years and the dad as recent as the last few months. Not only was he moved by the loss of his parents, but also by the guilt of not treating them as he should have when they were alive. He talked about the kindness and care of his mom. She couldn't read or write, but she always cared for him and his 6 siblings. He said she was God's angel. She did drink some, but that was mostly because his dad did too and it was just what they did. His dad did the best he could, he was a good man, but his mom was always there for him.
As I listened to this man express his sorrow, I thought of things he might have done to deserve such guilt for not treating his parents as well as he wanted to. Did he ignore their needs? Did he steal from them or mislead them in any way? What could have caused his guilt? It was not as I expected.
He went on to explain how his mom had a stroke and since he was the oldest of the children and the only one without a family (except for his brother who was in prison), he would need to care for his mom. His dad simply couldn't manage the task. Whether caused by the stroke or some other means, this gentleman's mom was as he explained "not in her right mind". She would eat toilet paper in such amounts that doctors would have to "flush out her system" to keep it from blocking all movement. Not only that, she was quite confused and would eat her own excrement. "I don't know why she did that", he explained. "That's wasn't like my momma to do things like that."
And then he would pause to cry. "I wasn't always kind to my mom...She always took care of me...I wish I could do it all over again and I would do it differently."
There was much more to this experience as we learned about the loneliness and isolation of this man's life. But we were also able to see his desire to help others and to do a kind deed if he would be given the opportunity. His guilt was not as I expected. Perhaps there was more, but what he told us today would indicate not that he neglected his family, but he just wished he could have done more. I thought that what he did do was more than most.
Like the book "Same Kind of Different as Me", I felt like I encountered a man who lived in a different world than myself with experiences that I will likely never see. And although I wanted to express my sincere love and concern for this hurting man, I felt like what I had to say would somehow get lost in the deep cavern that separated our worlds. And yet, as we held hands and ended our time in prayer, he eyes once again raised to meet ours. He said he was glad we came by to visit. He was really needing to talk to someone and it felt good.
I am certain that the same conversation would not have occurred if I entered the room as an administrator, or even a clinician. This man knew we were there to care for him and he was hungry for that love. We could have avoided the emotion with shallow conversation, but the intentional questions and painful silence led this man to say what was heavy on his heart.
What difference would it make if we approached people more often with an open agenda: I am here to care for you. What if we avoided the superficial conversation and instead invited people to tell us how they feel? What if we listened, even in the moments of painful silence? What if we saw no barrier of culture or experience and trusted that all humanity has a common desire to be loved? What if we were more diligent to share the good news of a love that forgives and embraces, strengthens and renews, even to the deepest part of our soul? What if we were willing to go there more often? What if...