About a month or so ago I began volunteering for a local hospice organization called Heartland Hospice. My job is pretty basic: I visit with Margaret (not her real name) about once a week. We sit a foot apart, she in her wheelchair and I in a straight-backed chair. We look each other straight in the eyes and we talk. It’s pretty simple and Margaret makes it easy on me, as she’s quite the talker.
But our relationship is different from any other I have ever had and here’s why: From visit to visit Margaret doesn’t remember me, although she’s always enthusiastic about having someone to talk to. Like many older adults (Margaret is going to be 98 this year!), her memory is not good and so she often asks me the same questions multiple times during the hour of our visit.
And, of course, she tells me the same stories every time I visit because, after all, she’s never met me before. So I get to hear again and again about her early life in North St. Louis, about walking through Fairgrounds Park to get to the then-new Beaumont High School (where my parents would also attend a few years later), about her wanting to be a dancer but her mother refusing to allow her daughter to “take to the stage,” about her father calling her “tin ear” because she would be so engrossed in a book she didn’t hear him calling her to dinner. She talks about her two marriages (one of 40-something years and the other, later in life, of about ten years). She tells me of her two sons, one who died in his 40s and one who lives in Florida now. Or maybe Texas. That part of the story sometimes changes.
I’m not poking fun of her memory, for I know it’s just a matter of time before that very fate may befall me or someone I love. “And so it goes,” as Kurt Vonnegut once so famously wrote.
But what I’ve come to learn during my short time with Margaret is this: I’m not visiting her and listening to her stories so we can build a relationship, for we don’t grow closer each time we meet; we just start over. So it’s not our relationship that matters to Margaret, it’s just my presence. It’s just that moment, that hour or so of having someone willing to listen, to lay a hand on her hand, to laugh at her jokes. Who doesn’t want and need that?
I had to learn to let go of the notion that we tell each other stories in order to build a friendship. For that’s how we generally make true friends. We share enough of ourselves over time through our stories that we become intimate and integral parts of each other’s lives. But not so for Margaret and me. For us, there’s just one hour and then we start again.
But that period of being authentically present to one another is enough. It must be. It’s all Margaret can muster right now. But it’s worth it. Her eyes sparkle when she tells me her stories, enthralled once more at the notion of taking to the stage with her dancing instructor, of skimming across the surface of the frozen lake at Fairgrounds Park, of finding love once again late in life. My presence is all that matters to her, and it’s all I have to offer. Margaret doesn’t know she’s a part of a hospice program, although she knows she’s 98 and time is short.
This morning, just as I was considering writing about my time with Margaret, I received a beautiful reflection written by my friend Karen Jessee on the gospel reading from this weekend’s liturgy (John 15:9-17). As always, Karen (an insightful writer and person of deep prayer) hit the nail right on the head. Her reflection includes this thought:
What does it mean for us to “lay down our lives for our friends?” How does Jesus “make our joy complete” when he instructs us to do this as the greatest act of love? Laying down our lives means remaining fully present in our encounters with others, offering our complete attention, our compassion, our wholehearted companionship without thought of ourselves in that moment. True listening may be the greatest gift of love.
The essence of love is giving without thought of remuneration, of listening without regard to what we get out of the conversation. If we can give nothing else to another person, we can give them our attention. We can turn off our cell phones and computers and televisions and just sit a foot apart, look into each other’s eyes and listen to one another.
Meeting Margaret drove that home to me. I’m the one who feels visited and blessed, so I wonder as I walk out the door of the nursing home and head back to my car: Who’s serving who here? And then I quickly realize that there is something more than Margaret and me at work in the room. There is the gentle movement of an undemanding God who has promised: “When two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.”