There are people ailing everywhere. In the rich part of town, in the poor part of town, in the city, in the country… you get it.. Everywhere! People are also able to stay in their homes for longer periods of time when they are ill. Medical professionals travel to them and provide the best care possible.
Over the past couple of days, I have traveled to a more rural part of town and to the grittiest area of the scariest neighborhood. Walking into a run down apartment building, with graffiti on the front door and what looked to be years worth of dirt on the floor, I was not sure what to expect. Still orienting, was super glad to have another nurse with me. I’m not normally scared of places like that.. When I was 18 and a know it all, I moved to NYC and lived in an apartment building that wasn’t far off in appearance from the one I was walking into today. The subway tiled white portico heavily spider webbed in grime and debris. The hallway walls were once white but have since grown to be a yellowish color from years of cigarette smoke. Apartment doors were missing numbers and a few looked like they had been attacked by hungry beavers… shards of wood left in the place of a once sturdy door. Luckily, our destination was on the first floor because the steps leading up looked to be straight out of a haunted house.
We were greeted by our patient. You see, not all hospice patients are laying in bed and on their last breath. Cheerful and pleasant, he invited us in and motioned for us to sit in the two plastic lawn chairs. As my preceptor did her assessment, I began looking around the room. It was a tiny little place. Most decent closets are bigger than the living room was. The patient’s glasses reflected the two sources of light in the room – the TV and a string of Christmas light surrounding some Native American art. There were no doors separating the rooms and I could see through the makeshift curtain that a tiny kitchenette and the bathroom could be found on the other side. The air in the room was heavy with the smell of cigarettes – so heavy it felt like it made its way into your pores. Hey.. I guess if you are on hospice, there’s no reason to worry about the dangers of smoking.
As the patient talked, I was struck by the kindness of this man. He spoke of taking care of neighborhood stray cats – he would put out food and water. You could almost feel his sadness as he told us stories of people being evicted and they would just toss out their cats. This man, who had really nothing, was feeding these poor animals. This man, who didn’t have enough money to pay for his medical care, was taking what he could to help the animals. His sadness was halted abruptly when the topic of conversation switched to his grandson.
His face lit up as he talked about babysitting the little toddler. The child and pap would dance and eat Popsicles together. He talked about seeing the little guy grow up and how great of a man he would be. As if he had a crystal ball, he knew that his grandson would go to college and that he was trying to put away what he could for it. In that moment, sitting in that tiny apartment in what most consider the worst part of town, I realized that people who have so little material possessions are the first to want to share them. It’s almost as if compassion and sharing diminish with the more we get. This man really had nothing, but was giving everything.
He knew his prognosis, yet, he was worried about those around him. He worried about who would take care of his cats and all the strays. He worried about how his girlfriend would survive without him. Not once did the talk about himself. Not once did he try to illicit sympathy for where he was living or for the road that he was walking. He didn’t miss things because he had never had them. The more we have, the more dependent we become on things for happiness. The more we have, the less we give. It is sometimes the poorest people who are the most generous and the happiest.
As we got into the car, the other nurse was complaining about how she had to get home to change her clothes because they were pungent with the smell of old smoke and a thick musky odor. Crazy as it may sound, I wasn’t so much in a rush because the smell was of a man who reminded me that being generous isn’t about how much you have but rather your willingness to give.