Dorothy is surly. Just ask anyone who knows her. The fact is I’m a little afraid of her which is why when she told me at my initial visit as her hospice chaplain that she didn’t want me to come back, shutting the door to any relationship, I was relieved. Then the social worker resigned and maybe because he was feeling like he didn’t want to abandon his patients completely, he reopened that door.
“She likes to read,” he told me. “I explained that you’re a writer and she said she’d meet with you.”
I smiled but I was not amused. I had met Dorothy. She declined spiritual care. She is surly.
But I love the social worker and if he thought we should try again; I will oblige. And I did.
Most of my visits since this second attempt are what I refer to as “Drive By Spiritual Care.” I duck in when she’s eating in the dining room or sitting at the activities table, give a pleasant greeting, a sincere query as to how she is doing, ask about her pain level and then move on to the next patient, the one who isn’t so surly. I’m not proud of this but it’s just how some visits get made.
It’s April Fools Day and Dorothy is on my device. I need to visit a couple of others at the facility so I’m thinking of another drive by when out of nowhere a colleague's comments about a visit she made as Volunteer Coordinator ring in my ears, my heart. “I didn’t like how it went,” she said speaking of a visit she made with a reticent patient of ours. “And I knew I could do better.” She went back and re-entered the conversation, learning more about this patient than any of us other professionals knew.
“I can do better,” I heard myself say. So, I stayed at Dorothy’s bedside while the staff member asked her why she had thrown her breakfast at the attendant. “I didn’t throw my breakfast,” she answered. And I just stayed where I was, kneeling at her side.
And then, the conversation took a turn. The staff member noticed her Oxygen tubing. It was not under her chin and wrapped around her ears as is protocol; it was instead wrapped around her neck.
“Dorothy, no, what is this?” She asked, tugging at the tubing. “You can’t do this. It’s dangerous. Let me show you how to use it.”
Dorothy replies. “You’ve shown me a hundred times.”
“Then why did you do this?” It’s a frantic question.
“I am defiant,” Dorothy answers. It’s the surly in her.
“You can’t do this. It’s dangerous. You’ll hurt yourself. We want you to be safe.” And on and on she goes citing every reason why Dorothy must not try to choke herself again. She is so professional and therapeutically correct I have nothing to add. It’s all said. And she puts the tiny plastic pieces in the patient’s nostrils, the tubing around her ears, tightens it below her chin and leaves. I stay where I am, kneeling at her bedside having observed the entire exchange.
She stares at me. I look at her and she transforms right before my eyes and I melt in this wave of compassion that has changed everything for me and finally I speak.
“There was a time when I didn’t want to live,” I confess, and Dorothy just stares at me.
“I feel connected to you,” I say.
“I feel connected to you,” she answers.
“What is that?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she replies.
“It’s holy,” is all I can say. And we just look at each other until I ask if I can hold her hand and she says yes and opens her fist and we sit, hand in hand without words.
“Ubunto is a deep African custom. It means, “I am because you are, you are because I am.” Mark Nepo says that it is something he has “always believed in, that in the ignited space of our deepest suffering, in the release of our deepest fears, in the familiar peace of our deepest joys, we are each other.”
I suspect that Dorothy will likely not remember this encounter. She will probably be surly at our next meeting and I will do a drive by spiritual care visit. But I will never deny that something deep and meaningful happened between us that week and even if it manifested on the day of fools, the African custom of Ubunto united us and I will never see Dorothy in the same light ever again.
You, my friend, are the light of the world.