Sunday, January 27, 2013

But what does it mean?

January 27, 2013

Dear friends,

“The stories about the people you met at Rehab are interesting,” a friend commented, “but I am waiting to hear what you have to share about your own experience.”

It was some time later before I realized that at the moment my friend made this comment I had heard what she said clearly enough, but I hadn’t understood at all what my friend meant to tell me. Actually, I had given her comment only casual passing attention until I began work on this week’s column.

THEN--pause. Long pause.

What is it with this story telling business?

What happens to me when I tell my story? And what happens to you when you read the stories I tell?

So far the stories are marked by a terrible simplicity. The first:

I went to the Rehab Center. I met a man who longed to go home, but who could not do so. He cried. I sat and listened to him cry.
Stripped to its essentials, that’s not much of a story. The second is little better.

I went to the Rehab Center. I met a woman who had lost a leg, but who applauded when I was able to walk unassisted across the dining room.
More stories may come (The Colonel and the Green Beans; Following Charley Brown, and others are on the drawing board). However, before these stories appear publicly, I want to ask something—actually, two things.

1) Do you learn something about yourself when you read the stories I share? If entertainment is the goal these stories are colossal failures.

2) What do you think I am telling you (however indirectly) about my experience and the change it brought in me? Why do I tell you? What relevance does my change have for you?

I want to try an experiment this week if you are willing to risk participating.

 Reread the last two blogs (Life in the Activities Room, and Courage to Celebrate). Then send an email to in which you think with me about these questions I have raised.

Thinking again how deeply I agree with John Donne: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”

See you next week.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Courage to celebrate

January 20, 2013

Dear friends,

Images from my time in the rehab center continue to play vividly in my mind. As you read perhaps something of my experience will tug at your sense of the value of life, and challenge you to think as well.

One woman spent a large portion of her time each day sitting stoically in her wheelchair at the busy intersection of the dining room entrance and the hall that led to the therapy room. She appeared withdrawn and disassociated from life around her. Her face was flat and expressionless, her eyes focused inwardly on some far-away place beyond the commotion of communal life that flowed around her.

She had only one leg. The prosthetic limb that she wore extended with stark reality beyond the hems of the skirts in which she habitually dressed, and, with brutal irony, ended in a large-sized Nike athletic shoe attached to her prosthetic foot.

She maintained a fierce wall of isolation that effectively alienated her from the noisy social interaction of the common life. Few fellow residents  risked  a casual “Good morning,” or a comment on the weather.

My walker met her wheelchair abruptly one morning at the intersection. I had veered left sharply in order to make space for the woman approaching with a cart of clean laundry, and hooked the front right wheel of my walker on the foot support of her wheel chair, the one carrying her prosthetic foot in its Nike athletic shoe.

I was appalled at my awkwardness. “Oh, sorry,” I stammered. “Just a moment and I’ll get us untangled.” I did so, but as I started to move my walker past her I felt a sudden impulse to reiterate my apology, to insure that I had reached through the wall of silence that surrounded her.

I stopped, reached out and touched the arm of her chair, then said directly into her passive face, “Hey, I’m sorry, really sorry. Life is tough enough without being run over on the way to breakfast.” To my surprise, it seemed as though for a moment she smiled, then the moment passed and we moved on.

In the following days I would say, “Hello” each time we met in the hall; sometimes I would reach out to touch the arm of her wheelchair as we passed. Her response became steadily more visible—she did smile—and more audible. The morning that I heard her clearly say “Hello” seemed a time of high achievement for us both.

Anticipating my Thursday discharge, on Monday I was assigned responsibility to dress myself without assistance, and get myself to breakfast using cane only—no more walker. Managing myself and the trip to the dining room took longer than I had anticipated, however.

As I approached the door I could see that most of the regular breakfast people were already seated in their customary places. I stopped for a moment to decide where I would sit. Having chosen a spot, I started across the room using my shiny black cane self-consciously and cautiously.

As I slowly made my way, a soft brief scatter of applause arose from the table where my Nike friend was sitting. When I glanced up, I saw her smile.

I will always believe that it was she who initiated that moment of applause. But it was what she showed me of her inner world rather than the applause that touched my heart.

Thinking with you about the courage it takes to celebrate the ability to walk when you observe it from the vantage point of the wheelchair that is likely to be your life-long companion.

See you next week.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Life in the activities room?

January 13, 2013

Dear friends,

In a rehab unit, doing what you can do where you are is not a simple matter. However unwelcome the process may be, patience with pain forms the core of daily discipline.  Learning to value each increment of change requires experience and careful counting of small things.

Matters of the heart are most difficult of all.

In considering heart issues I am thinking about more than the treatment plans of the cardiologist and the physical therapist, essential to continuing life as these are. I want to raise a question that lies beyond efforts to strengthen the heart muscles. What can we do where we are to strengthen our capacity to choose life?

I am still thinking about the man in the wheelchair who, whenever he could escape staff supervision, would come to the outside door in the hall near my room. Placing his hands on the glass, he would lean against the door and cry softly, over and over again, “I want to go home. I want to go home.”

I suppose that “doing what he could” might have included his wheeling himself to the activity room to watch TV. It might have included wheeling himself to the snack bar, or quarreling with his neighbor who insisted on singing off-key at the top of her voice. (“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was her current seasonal favorite.)

But what if this man’s work (the thing he could indeed do, and needed to do) was to face straight on his loneliness, cry his tears? What if choosing life was choosing the tears and loneliness and the closing door of his life rather than watching an episode of “Jeopardy” in the activity room?

What then was my work?

I was to be discharged on Thursday. I was indeed “going home.” Wednesday evening I sat for a long time with my door open thinking and listening as the man cried for the home he could not reach that lay  beyond the door he could not open.

I could not comfort him; I could not change his family situation. I could not restore his deteriorating mental capacity that had reduced “going home” to a matter of persuading someone to open that outside door.

Then what was my work?

After a while I thought, “I can listen. I can be here, an anonymous sensing presence in this grief. I can honor this man's continuing hunger for life through my listening presence, my face and name unknown. I can be here present with him in front of this closed door."

When the nurse came, glimpsing me through the open doorway, she said cheerfully, “Oh, you mustn’t sit there in the dark. There’s a very funny TV show on in the activities room that I’m sure you would like. There are lots of things to do here so people can always stay busy if they choose to do so.”

That was, of course, true. The facility is carefully managed with strict attention to the well-being of the patients. But patient care was not the issue that preoccupied me.

I wondered. In some way had my choice of wordless sharing reassured him? Could he sense that  because his grief was his life that it was important, and that I thought it was important to me as well as to him? In a way that lay beyond my ability to explain, his grief and the closed door became my work as well.
 I do not know his name. Nevertheless, I was honored --and changed--by the life he shared with me.

The most important choices do not necessarily occur in the activity room.

See you next week.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Wine or cheese?--Maybe. People?--Not so much

January 6, 2013

Dear friends,

Thank you for your generous notes of support and encouragement during this last small adventure.

And thank you, Lori. You kept the weekly deadline of my blog faithfully while also keeping your own. Your sharing was a gift to all the readers. And your sharing was a great comfort to me. I liked knowing that those who read and think with me weekly were continuing to think and read with you. Their privilege. My blessing.

As you all know, via Lori’s communication, after a brief over-night hospital stay, I spent the two weeks before Christmas in a Rehabilitation Facility. The experience provided significant new learning for me.

It provided a loss as well. I lost—permanently—any illusions that, like some distinguished types of cheese and wine, I might mellow and improve with age.

Not so.

I am thinking that the best I can do—or the best any of us can do, as a matter of fact—is simply to do what we can do with what we have left at this time of life. And—whatever the paradox of doing something out of emptiness—the life-long challenge remains the same: the decision to come with strength and integrity to our task whatever our limitations of resources may prove to be.

I am ambivalent about setting the content of the blog for the next few weeks.  Writing about a pre-Christmas stay in a skilled nursing facility has stories for many blogs, perhaps even for a small book. But I am uneasy about your potential response.

Wondering if you might, like me, prefer to begin the year with "happily-ever-after" stories.

How much discomfort is truth worth?

See you next week,