One emotional-health tool I’ve discovered through the years…and especially THIS year, is choosing to look (if desperately sometimes) for something that is good. Something to hold on to. Gratitude is a lifesaver…and by lifesaver, I mean the flimsy ring on a rope that you barely catch on the third or fourth try. You are still sputtering and swallowing water, the current is still sucking you downriver to the end of the world, but you are holding on to something again…and as you get a tighter grip, you start to believe you may possibly find terra firma again.
The biggest thing I keep returning to when I look for the good in Vernon’s situation is his relationship with Joe…or rather, Joe’s relationship with Vernon. I knew I liked Joe the first time we waved and smiled at each other, when he was out sunning and smoking in the courtyard all day long. Some people just strike you with that charisma before you even get to know them. And now…he is Vernon’s watchdog and my gratitude-lifesaver.
Since becoming Vernon’s roommate a couple of months ago, Joe has become increasingly committed to him. Remember when he used to volunteer to be his dialysis sitter, so that I wouldn’t have to find people to sit with Vernon three times a week? (That reminds me, there is another thing I’m grateful for: thank you, amazing volunteer sitters! You are LITERAL life-savers.)
Of course Joe was a patient himself, and not allowed to go. But he was so willing. At the time, he was desperate to find a job, a purpose. Well, he seems to have figured that purpose out for this season. He refuses to leave Vernon’s side if he is on the geri-chair and out of the room, he fills me in on all the goings on and conversations when Vernon wakes up in the middle of the night and wants to talk, he won’t let the student nurses anywhere near Vernon (because he doesn’t think they show him appropriate respect,) and if a friend comes to visit, he guides them around and fills them in on any information they might need to know. He even stopped stashing his giant tub of Twizzlers in the room because Vernon kept asking for one and wasn’t allowed. Though he prefers to take his meals in the room, he never eats in front of Vernon…ever. Sometimes he will wait a couple of hours and let the food go cold, because he doesn’t want Vernon to envy him. In his words: “I don’t want to be rude.”
Joan, down the hall, who is also a very able-minded patient, has a similar relationship with her own roommate, Rose, a 93 year old cancer patient, who, according to the photographs, appears to have aged 10 years in the last 9 months. Rose, who can barely hear, is crabby and often downright mean. But Joan told me she wouldn’t change rooms with her for anything. She thinks of herself as her advocate, always making sure Rose is getting what she asks for as much as possible.
I love Joe. Joe loves Vernon. He told me so the other day.
“He’s my friend,” he said. “I’m sticking with him for the duration of this time, whatever that is. They tried to get me out into another room because they know I don’t sleep as much as they think I should, but I told them I’m not leaving. I just wish they would let me take him out in the sun with me. It would be so good for him. I just feel so bad for him. I feel what he is going through.”
There is a burden that comes with love. These people live with it every day in a way that most of us haven’t had to. I’d love to think it as a sort of enlightenment. If only the people running the world had some of their enlightenment, we might be better off. Instead, these guys, like spiritual monks, are tucked away from society behind nursing home walls and their safety red-tape.
About a month ago, I noticed that Joe wasn’t as jovial as before. I wondered if spending so much time with Vernon was having a negative affect on him. He seemed more frustrated at the staff and the “rules.” He talked about being frustrated that they wouldn’t listen to him, concerning his requests about Vernon.
Joan rolled her eyes. “Joe is finally getting it,” she said. “This is what happens when you become an advocate and are also a patient. They just don’t take us seriously.”
For both of them, caring for someone else is making their lives there bearable…certainly more full. It also brings new sorrow. What brings the best out in us is also what breaks our hearts. And learning to live with that, I guess, is the great walk of a compassionate human.
Joe also says he enjoys Vernon’s company because “he gives me perspective.” I figured he meant that looking at Vernon’s situation gave him perspective on his own life, a reminder that he is actually less disabled. But perhaps it was more than that.
“You know, it gets you thinking, all this…I believe in God, I guess. I wouldn’t say I was “in love” with him or anything. But lately I’ve been thinking there is a purpose to all of this that we are dealing with here. There is a reason Vernon and I are here at the same time. Stuff like that. What about you, Vernon? What do you think about that?”
There was a pause before he answered. Vernon seemed to be looking for the right words (which his often mixes up.)
“I…I give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Joe nodded his head, thoughtfully. “Yeah, exactly.”
Then he looked at me. “See? He gives me perspective.”
I couldn’t agree more.