I met a man who looks like Santa Claus but acts like Scrooge. He was a paramedic for 35 years and now the bitterness resulting from sustained illness has caused him to bemoan every aspect of his life from his smelly apartment to his old dog with failing teeth. He hates our beautiful town almost as much as he hates the government and his “feeble-minded” doctors who will never ever listen to him.
I met a woman who has bone cancer, but you’d never know it by looking at her. She was the picture of joy and strength as she floated into her chemo clinic with a laughter that was infectious. “Did I mention that I broke my shoulder this weekend? I’ve got an MRI after chemo,” she said with a deep sigh and a wink.
I met a lady named Nina who had 7 children, but only 3 are living now. They all had varying forms of addiction and she couldn’t quite get them to stay on the straight path. Sadly, it got passed into the next generation and she was leaving the next day for a funeral so she could burry one of her grandsons who got caught up in a gang and drug related shooting.
Then I met a woman named Cindy whose magenta pink lipstick matches her magenta pink track suit. She can drink a whole suitcase of Bud Light in one weekend!
I met a man named Robert today who is clinging to his very last thread of independence. He probably shouldn’t be walking, but he knows the second he is completely wheelchair-bound, everything will change. He’ll wind up in a state-run facility where your days are scheduled and access to the outside world feels limited. He struggles up the 2 steps into his home and I imagine he struggles even more up the 15 steps to his bedroom. He tripped over trash on the floor and cursed it, all the while knowing he can’t bend over to pick it up. A bowl full of cigarettes sat next to a very well-worn easy chair in his living room, hinting at how he spends most of his days. His 5-day old stubble and stains on his shirt suggest that just getting ready for a trip to the grocery store is a lot of energy, energy that he’d rather save for the produce department.
These are just a few of the people I’ve met in the past few weeks since I started volunteering for a local organization that provides free rides to elderly and disabled people. Most of them go to doctor appointments, hospitals, dialysis and chemo. But some of them like Robert just need a ride to the grocery store that is 4 blocks away. My job is to show up with a smile on my face and take them to their destination.
One of my favorite things is just asking them questions as we drive along. I’m not afraid to ask about their illness or disability. That’s one thing I wished (or perhaps, still wish for?) I had more of throughout my SCDS journey. Many people with chronic illness, disability or pain actually need to talk about it, process it and share. It helps them to feel understood, validated, heard. When you have a chronic medical problem, you live with it every hour of every day. And you get to talk about it very infrequently to people who are quick to change the topic of conversation and remain unengaged. I experienced that more than I care to admit in the last year.
Every person who has sat in my backseat gushes out answers a geyser when I ask even one little probing question. They want to tell me how hard it’s been, how frustrating blood draws are, how their medications are causing weird side effects. They go into a doctor’s office and they have exactly 5 minutes to explain things before the doctor cuts them off, writes a lab order and is on to the next patient. I get it. I get it so much. It’s good to have a listening ear sometimes. I’m glad I can be that ear.
The job is easy enough. I love to drive and I love to help people. It’s a winning combination.
The difficult part is hearing the stories, seeing the struggle and feeling the swells of empathy roll through my gut. Part of me wanted to stay the whole day with Robert instead of just setting his groceries on the kitchen counter. I wanted to clean, make lunch and talk more with him. I also couldn’t wait to leave, because the sadness pierced my heart so deeply, I was afraid I might burst into tears right in front of him.
I get these little glimpses of what life is like….without health, without hope, without Christ. And it’s almost too much for me to bear. Almost.
I will continue because I know it’s just as good for me as it is for them. I’ve gained a lifetime’s worth of perspective in just a few short weeks. I have more face-to-the-ground gratitude in my heart than I ever have before. My heart is overflowing. God has brought me a sense of joy, strength and spiritual fruit that I can only hope to overflow back into their lives through the love of Christ.