Mr. J reeked of urine. He knew it too, his mind was sharp but his body was failing him. Ever since his stroke a few years back it has been hard for him to get around. He couldn’t always get to the bathroom in time and it was become increasingly difficult for him to wash himself. I can recall him well, hobbling hunched over, leaning precariously on his cane, making his way down the hall to the exam room. He was only about 60 when he suffered his stroke, which lead to partial paralysis on the left side of his body. But even before that he had a slew of medical problems: overweight, high blood pressure, heart failure, diabetes, all of which were gradually becoming worse.
Mr. J had no children and lived with his elderly mother and sister. He had a few friends and was part of a church but his health limited his ability to get out. Though he was known to take his Pomeranian to the park and watch him yap at the walkers from time to time. He would tell me stories of frustration like how hard it was to keep his house clean when he couldn’t actually reach down and pick up something off the floor. I was horrified listening to stories of him laying in bed and spraying the roaches as they scurried up the walls. His house was so badly infested that they even got into his CPAP machine (a sort of breathing machine with tubing and a mask that straps onto your face to help a patient breathe better at night) so that he couldn’t use it because the roaches would come out and crawl around in the tubes.
As his family doctor I saw him every month. He would bring me little cards or bookmarks that he had picked up for free at church, sometimes he would bring a news article that he thought I’d like or a book to show me that he was reading. During our short visits I would review his health, ask him what he had been eating (usually Taco Bell and Bluebell Ice Cream), and how swollen his legs had been. He would answer me and then pick up on a more pleasant topic, his dog’s latest antic or something the pastor said at church. I enjoyed his company but about 15 minutes into our time I would start to get antsy, the smell of urine was strong in the small exam room and I had patients to see who had their own concerns and didn’t have any sympathy for Mr. J’s or his Pomeranian. I would begin rushing, getting his medication refills, and start pushing to get him out the door.
I remember one day in particular when I was especially behind and trying to finish up. As I tried to wind down our visit Mr. J reached into his bag and pulled out a stack of framed pictures wrapped in grocery bags. There were four 5×7’s, one was a dog, another a cheerleader and a couple of senior portraits. A few decades ago Mr. H had been a studio photographer and these were some of his photos. He began to tell me the stories behind each one, what had become o the dog and where the cheerleader was today. In my hurry I didn’t listen, I only strategized as to how I could get out of the room. I glanced at his pictures, handed them back and hurried on. I asked the nurse to make sure someone helped him back to the car. I didn’t think twice about it, I was on to the next patient.
Right now in our reading group we are working through Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk. It is essentially a poetic memoir of Norris’ time in Benedictine monasteries. Today in my reading Norris retells her experience of hearing a homily (a short talk about the scripture readings set in the middle of a liturgical worship service), the monk speaking talks about the different ways that people received Jesus. Their particular reading had covered a story where Jesus’ listeners were so uncomfortable with his teachings and healings that they thought he must be possessed with demons and needed to be restrained. At the end of the story the monk poses the question,
“How do we respond to the good?”
Norris was shaken up by it she remembers a gift her husband had given her, it wasn’t exactly what she wanted and so she didn’t receive it. She rejected the good, the gift of love that her husband was offering. When I read this story my memories of Mr. J came rushing back.
“How do I respond to the good?”
How to I respond to a lonely man who brings a piece of his life to share with me?
How do I respond to my daughter when she eagerly asks for the 20th time today for me to watch her spin on the swing? Do I take pause to notice the colors of the sunset or the smell of the rain? Am I grateful to be safe in the midst of a violent world? Am I so full of myself that my to-do list comes before the person in front of me? Am I so set on guarding my heart that I’d rather hurt someone else than feel vulnerable?
I am that selfish, or at least I was. Mr. J sat in front of me, a man who could barely walk, who went to the trouble to collect these special pieces from his past to share with me. He brought something he was proud of, he offered me a snap shot of who he used to be.
I didn’t pause long enough to receive it. I didn’t want to connect, I didn’t want my heart to be stirred up or to let my guard down to see him as a person rather than a list of diagnoses and treatments. He brought me a part of his life and I wrapped it back up in plastic and stuffed it in a bag.
Norris says,”My pride will resist every change I haven’t chosen. . . ” When my daughter asks me to dance with her, when my husband wants me to go on a walk with him, when my mom calls to catch up, each time I have to chose. Do I stick with my plan, do I keep checking off my list or do I stop and notice heart of the person in front of me, do I connect? How am I going to respond to the good?