My favorite patient at hospice was George. I don’t have any idea why. Maybe it was because he and I discussed sports comfortably. Maybe it was because he was so young and had a brain tumor and it was so darn unfair. Maybe it was because he would forget the name of the pitcher or linebacker or hockey center he was referencing, and then would remember the name the minute I left the room, so he would wheel out and shout down the hallway, “I remember, it was Stan Mikita!” Then the staff would shush him and I would chuckle, and give him a thumbs up. And maybe there’s just no reason why I felt so connected to him.
George was divorced and had a twelve year old daughter whom he saw infrequently. We talked about his inability to see her grow up. I would leave his room and cry but something made me go back every day. And when his daughter’s birthday approached, a couple of volunteers and I went out and bought presents so that George could give her something. The volunteers had fun wrapping those presents in pink and purple and gobs of glitter.
I still remember the day George’s daughter was planning to come and see him. I happened to be walking down the hall of the care center, and I peeked in to see if George needed anything else on this joyous occasion. Instead, I saw him sitting in bed, quietly crying, one of the presents at his side. I didn’t want to disturb him, so I looked in for a just a few seconds.
But in those intimate moments, the veil fell away and I saw the heavy shackles that bound him to us. The massive chains of our compassion tethered him to our desire to help and the heavy links now became visible through his pain.
Were his tears made of joy or sorrow? Did he cry from joy because we helped him or did he cry because he had lost control of everything precious and dear and was now dependent upon the kindness of strangers? Did he feel trapped, allowed to walk only as far as our chains would allow and only in the perimeter of our understanding?
Do the people we serve once in a while verbally strike out at us and can it be that they sometimes feel shackled to us? Is it kind of like the stranglehold the skydiving instructor has on the newbie skydiver who is strapped in tight and really is just a ride along on the way down? Does our tandem journey through folks’ lives sometimes strap them to our protective helping?
I went back to my office and closed the door and sat down. I wondered, in all our feel good desire to help, did we rob George of his last shred of dignity? Do we, sometimes in our exuberance, forget that a real person with complex feelings is on the end of that strap?
I continued to see George until he died. But after that day, I started to see him as more complex, more in charge and more mysterious. I could still see the shackles that bound him to us, but the volunteers and I discussed how to better serve his needs without strengthening the chain.
It’s true, the shackles were still there, but we tried our darnedest to make sure George had a key.