It feels strange walking into that place, but the folks here are my friends now. I keep going back and have been for months. On the surface, I have little in common with these people. A few are good friends but everyone is kind. The folks who work there all greet me and ask how I am. The others are mostly old, some sick, and facing what I don’t have to face. I greet most of them. When I smile a them, they smile back, some surprised when I say “hello.” Maybe it’s because they are not being ignored.
We all share one thing; kindness to one another and a promise of only today. I will get a new heart. Soon, I hope, and put off what they face, then get on with a new adventure. They help me wait for a heart, asking if there is any news every time I see them.
“Not yet. Soon, I hope.” I look into their faces and feel as if I have disappointed them once again.
I had planned to be on the ocean now, sailing the South Pacific, living a life of adventure. I thought I would be sitting on a long white beach on the edge of the jungle, surrounded by women with long black hair and skin like oiled cedar, wearing grass skirts, eating freshly caught fish and drinking fruit juice by a drift-wood fire under the stars, resting up for the next leg of a long sail. Ariadne, my sailboat would be safely at anchor in a serene bay. She was my home for years, and is now for sale.
On the other hand, perhaps I am supposed to be leading a difficult engineering project as I have done to make my daily bread for many years. It might be project in China, where I only have a week or two to figure out a machine performance problem with a bunch of guys lost in some form of root cause analysis that only works when the answer is easy.
The woman in the grass skirt, and the guy lost in his engineering project all have something to teach me. So do these old people here. I only find out through the stories they tell me.
Several years ago I was in Bangkok with my son, then 20 years old or so. We were sitting at railing outside a cafe late one night watching people as they worked and reveled in the city of pleasure. He was having a beer, and I was having mineral water. I asked him what he thought about one woman of negotiable virtue as she passed by with a guy many years her senior. My son judged her a bit harshly, as a young man would. We then talked about what might be her story, a story we knew nothing about. I knew her story was as short as she was young, but likely a harsh one. She was doing what she could to survive one more day.
Mary and Dr. Raymond, both patients in their 90’s, have become good friends at this place, where I go for physical therapy three times a week, and where I lived for two months after coming out of a coma, weak, and unable to walk. I don’t just go for therapy, but because I want to hear their stories. I look forward to the hour I am there. I talk and listen, and know the therapists think I should spend more time doing therapy and less time talking.
Stories from people like Mary and Dr. Raymond are as long as they are old. There are harsh parts to the stories. Dr. Raymond was an infantryman in Europe in WW II, and became a trauma surgeon after the war. He has a hard time remembering names, but I love it when he calls out mine with a smile on his face from his wheelchair as soon as he sees me. I get to know him through his stories that are history to me.
Mary lost her husband not long ago, and it pains her to talk about it, but her eyes brighten when she tells me about her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Who are these people who tell these stories? Are they the people we spurned as foolish in the 60’s and 70’s? Are they the people who went to war in the 40’s almost all from humble homes constrained by good manners? This room for therapy is filled with kindness, and people from different races and languages. I have heard Thai, English, Spanish, and know there are people from much of the Caribbean. There are patients of many races, and therapists of as many races taking care of them, all mixed together. It makes up the story of this place. I am a little part of that story and can make it better with just a smile, an ear, and a little story or two of my own.
Mary walked over to me today while Melody sat not far away. It takes her a while but I knew she was coming to talk to me. I was lifting my legs in an exercise Melody had me doing.
Mary said, “John, put your legs down.” I did. “I prayed all weekend for you to get a heart.” She leaned over and kissed me, and I kissed her back. What a wonderful act of kindness!
Melody said, “I think I am going to cry.”