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.


1 comment:

  1. Gay, This story touched me deeply. I need time to re-read and think to process it. It takes me back to the times when I visited my dad in the lock-down facility for people with dementia. There were always "activities"; but those did not take away the pain of being locked away: safe and secure. Thank you for sharing. Presence is an important gift.