The Kindness of Strangers

Please allow me to thank those of you who left kind comments, prayers and poems concerning my brother. I am always immensely humbled by examples of huge generosity of spirit by strangers, for other strangers.

When I think back on 9/11, I remember the people helping each other, pulling each other along, one person dousing another’s face with bottled water to cleanse the eyes of ash and more, people driving hours from regions upstate to leave sandwiches and lemonade for hard-working volunteers. Living in New York, I’ve seen it over and over again – people who might not ever speak with each other suddenly pull together – in the face of an attack, or a blackout, or bad weather. Somehow the instinctive communal spirit takes over and those in need are roused and rescued by strangers who simply see trouble and are moved to response.

And of course, it is not simply a “New York” thing. While some New Yorkers are snidely dissing red staters, many of them remember that in the days following 9/11, there were people from Oklahoma, people from Utah, people from Tennessee and Georgia and all those other “hick” states who had driven to New York (no one could fly) to help – to bring supplies – to offer what support or expertise they could.

And now, we see it on the internet, too – in the co-operation between bloggers who are trying to verify information, or disprove fake documents, collect money for a good cause…and in the touching kindness between folks who – agreeing or disagreeing on many issues – hear sad news and offer strengthening words of encouragement. I thank you, all, with a humble and grateful heart.

S is, unbelievably, still with us – heaven alone knows why or for how long. The last few days have left all of us rather breathless and somewhat speechless. We have been gathering from morning to late evening (with some pulling “night” duty) at hospice, to help S (and each other) through all of this. We take turns wiping profuse sweat from a gaunt and wasted face, trying to entice him into eating a mouthful of something puree’d but nourishing. We sing carols, and pray the rosary while his lips move along. We listen to endless hours of random, disjointed thought brought on by exhaustion and AIDS dementia. Suddenly, inexplicably, the man does not sleep, no matter what the dosages.

His pain managed by an impressive array of drugs, reflexology and the grace of being half in and half out of heaven, Se talks constantly, his confused mind taking fragments of television noise, side-conversations and his own memories and running them through a metaphorical salad spinner to come up with pronouncements that seem alternately humorous, mad or wise. People seen only by S come in and out of the room, and he speaks with them at length. Tonight, he repeatedly talked to someone he called “Ma’am” (because S is not only the kindest man I have ever known – he is also unfailingly polite, no matter what his condition) and asking her questions. Apparently S and “Ma’am” have some issues to work out before he will go with her.

He talks. He talks. Then he gasps for air, and grabs a hand. He talks some more. He hardly ever dozes. S wants to live and has come to distrust sleep, and so he stays awake; he uses every bit of his energy to stay alert and talk. I think he’s brilliant, and brave, but also very afraid.

And day after day we find ourselves looking at each other and sharing the same thought: We don’t want this to be happening…but if it must happen, must it go on and on? When will he, finally, lay it down? What a strong, lion-hearted fellow our flamboyant brother has proved himself to be…but when will he lay it down?

We want him to stay. We want him to go. We want him to live, but not like this. Tonight, his speech blocked by mucous, I helped a nurse. I held S’s mouth open, encouraging him to sing “Ahhhh” while she plundered past his tonsils with a tube, to clear out the muck. Breathing easier, he talked some more. Sometimes, we will soothe his parched lips with a moistened sponge attached to a plastic applicator. Each time I do it, I think of a wine-soaked sponge raised to the mouth of the Man-God in his last hours. “I thirst.”

S thirsts, but seems not yet quite sure for what.

God bless all nurses. The woman of this hospice are, to a one, impressive people with seemingly bottomless reserves of compassion, kindness, humor and faith. Yes, I did say faith. Each one has, at one point or another dropped everything to pray with anyone who wants prayer, or to share their own understanding of the process of dying as it is informed by their faith, and yes it has helped; it has inspired. One nurse in particular starts her shift off by coming in to S and singing a spiritual for him, and her tremendous willingness to walk a hard road with people she does not know – will not know again once the road has ended – leaves all of us awestruck and humbled. Her name is Valerie and we are convinced that there must be special rooms in heaven waiting for her and for the women and orderlies with whom she works. They are each magnificent specimens of human heart, generosity and fortitude. Breathtakingly good people. We wonder amongst ourselves how we will ever repay them for their exceedingly kind gifts of themselves. A luncheon? Gift Certificates? It all sounds so lame, so trite, compared to what they have shared.

It’s late. I’m tired. Tomorrow morning, we do it again, and again, until S finds his opening to leave, until he finds his peace. There is an odd sort of grieving that is already begun. We miss him, already, because so much of S is gone…but the grief feels almost like a warm-up for what we know is going to fully wrench our hearts.

I remember Nancy Reagan commenting, as her beloved husband went away from her, that no one gets through life without bearing a measure of real, prolonged heartbreak. I have always known it, but I remembered it tonight as I watched other families at hospice, working their way through the death/dying process. I remembered it when I read, briefly, about the tragic situation concerning Dick Ebersole. I remembered it when I read some of your heartfelt notes and comments. None of us escapes. We all get our personal 9/11’s. It is a blessing when we help each other through it. Again and once more, thanks to all for their gracious expressions of support. May God bless.

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