May 5, 2013
This is the last story (I think) from my rehab adventure, at least for now. This story is complicated and fragmented as, indeed, all the rehab stories have been. This story was particularly difficult to catch, however, and, even after thinking long about it, that portion of the story I can tell will require you to make the story’s meaning out of your own life journey.
In my mind I named the staff member who played an important role in this story “Irish.” She was, I would guess, in her early fifties. Her face was beautiful—even the wrinkles that had begun to show were beautiful. She had typical Irish coloring, although her once red hair was now threaded with gray, and her freckles showed only as a faint cinnamon dusting across her pert nose. She moved with a dancer’s poise, energy and balance; she was graceful even when she was tired.
When Irish was at work on the unit, laughter came more easily. Hope seemed more possible—perhaps the hard things could become better. We knew that Irish thought that they could. That was, in part, the reason that she came to be with us.
The residents watched for her. They knew her schedule. The segment of the story that I caught began when Irish moved from morning to afternoon shift, and involved a resident I had seen in passing but whose name I learned only much later. Irish appears first in the story because she was the person I could most easily see. Only near the end of the story did I come to understand that the story truly belonged to this man whose name I did not initially know.
The man whose story this is was wheelchair bound. He was probably in his mid-forties (I guessed). In therapy he was working with fierce concentration to gain strength and skill that would enable him to transfer from his wheelchair to a chair independently. He had been handsome once, but his face now was lined, troubled and tense; his eyes were angry. A scar pulled the corner of his sensitive mouth slightly downward. I did not see him smile.
His preferred place in the dining room was a small table in a corner area. He did not talk with anyone in the dining area or in the activities room. As I observed him, he appeared to live life in a brooding bitter silence that isolated him. He journeyed alone, and clearly communicated that he wanted it that way. Except—well, you will see.
Nights were difficult for me at the center, and I was often wakeful and restless. My room was near the outer door into the parking lot so that when my door was open I could see staff from the afternoon shift as they left. When Irish left, a scattered chorus of hushed “good nights” drifted down the quiet hall. But as I sleepily watched the daily pattern of the evening exodus, I became aware that as Irish left each night she would turn, look back down the hall and say clearly, “Good night, Tom. I’ll be here tomorrow.”
Who, I wondered, was Tom?
I eventually discovered that Tom (not of course his real name) was the silent brooding man in the wheelchair whose face had so interested me. And the part of the story that I had caught was this: Tom, who showed nothing but a therapy-focused interest in any person or event, made it a nightly ritual to sit where he could see Irish out the door. He waited for her “Good night, Tom,” and her reassurance that she would return. I did not ever hear him say a word in response.
What did it mean for Tom to see Irish go, to watch the door close behind her? What work was Tom doing as he watched Irish leave his world, listening to her gentle “Good night”, then waiting to see if after the darkness she did indeed return? What work was Irish doing for herself as she persisted in speaking night after night into the hard dark silence of Tom’s life?
Obviously, life events have differing levels of significance—not everything that happens is a ‘big deal’, as street language would put it. Nevertheless, I have come to believe that there is little if any trivia in this world—there are only those things that we fail to see as part of someone’s story.
I wonder if Jesus was thinking about paying attention not just to God but also to each other when he said, "Let him that has eyes to see see." Thinking with you about the needless injury we inflict when out of self absorption we trivialize any segment of any human's story.
Seeking to be a faithful storycatcher of the commonplace.
See you next week.