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That morning was filled with the chaos of emails and phone messages and the flitting of staff whose requests and questions settled onto my desk. As I scrolled through the emails and deleted the spammy junk, I then moved onto the “cute” emails from volunteers. I love that they feel close enough to send me their chain emails, even though the sheer volume is cumbersome. I came across a video from a volunteer about the random giving of 1000 origami cranes to strangers. Lovely music accompanied the surprised looks on the faces of strangers as a young woman shared her kindness with humanity. I’ve gotten plenty of videos before, random acts of kindness shared by the network of people in our volunteers’ lives.
As I closed the email, I looked up to see Stuart standing in front of me. Stuart is a volunteer who seldom requires any attention or help. As a matter of fact, I actually feel rather inadequate in his presence. A former Army officer and professor, Stuart has ridden the wings of power in circles I can only imagine. A tragedy brought Stuart to volunteer. His own personal grief, shared only in carefully guarded pieces has made him one powerful volunteer. Sometimes there is an incredible fusion in volunteers, almost like a big bang theory of worlds colliding that can produce an amazing giver. Stuart is one of those people.
“Hi Stuart,” I said, “what brings you here today?”
His face was intense, purposeful. “They called me in to sit with a patient.”
“Oh, of course.” In a millisecond, I switched gears. See, volunteer managers can change personas at will. It’s a skill that serves us well as we morph into the role we need to assume.
“Let’s go find out where they want you to be,” I said, getting up and heading for the nurses’ station. Stuart is an 11th hour, or vigil or whatever you want to term it volunteer. These are volunteers who sit with the dying who are alone at the end of the journey. These folks are incredible, and they take their jobs to heart with the fierceness of a soldier battling the forces that are trying to keep the dying alone.
Stuart was led to a room where a man was actively dying. He was alone, because his family was in route and Stuart would be the human presence until they arrived. The man was young, dying of melanoma and he had taken a turn for the worse during the night. His parents were on their way.
So, Stuart entered the room, inhaling the scene. He pulled a chair up close and sat down, his eyes riveted to the human spirit struggling to escape the failing body. Stuart took in the whispered instructions from the nurse then looked up a me and nodded once. “Go, I’ve got this, I’m on duty.”
As I walked back towards my office, I had to stop, so I paused at the water fountain. Such intense moments cannot be shrugged off so easily. I needed to feel the weight of a life ebbing away, to process the intensity of a volunteer giving of himself completely.
I returned to tasks, somewhat distracted, still feeling the energy of what was happening a short way from my workspace. I thought back to the class Stuart had taken on the imminently dying, and how, looking over the faces of the volunteers in attendance, I was struck by the sheer power of their will. Each one had their own story, their own reason to give so intimately and the humility of it all had been overwhelming.
These feelings lingered and I kept glancing at the door to see if Stuart would check in before he left. If he didn’t, well, I understood the why of that decision only too well.
A short time later, when thankfully, no one was waiting to chat, Stuart did come in. “Please don’t let there be any interruptions,” I said under my breath. He looked drained.
“They arrived,” he said, speaking of the parents. “They are with him now and he’s close.” Stuart’s face was lined with the responsibility of holding a soul in his hand.
“And you?” I whispered.
He smiled. “I’m good. I’m glad I could be here.” The myriad of inner emotions stayed inside where he prefered them to remain.
“Thank you Stuart.” I said, knowing that any other statements or questions would be lame, flat.
“Call me anytime.” He stood up, and shook my hand. “Anytime.” With that he turned and walked out.
There will be no You Tube video of Stuart. He has no message to share with the voyeurism masses. His is an intensely private journey.
Later, I checked with the nurse, and the patient’s parents were with him when he died. In their mix of hard emotions, the parents might not even realize that Stuart was there, not yet anyway. Would it matter to Stuart if they never did know that he spent that time between life and death with someone he did not know, yet cared about so deeply? Or would his reward just be the knowledge that he had spent the most intimate of moments with another?
I started the morning looking at a woman giving cranes to strangers, and ended the morning witnessing a soldier wield his proverbial sword to keep a stranger from dying alone.
Volunteering is of swords and cranes and sometimes, they mean the same thing.