Taking care of people is most of my story, and so making friends with powerlessness is a lot of it, too. We are soft creatures, and we all get hurt. We can’t erase another’s pain. We can barely manage our own.
Sometimes there is nowhere to put the pain, so the cells go to work holding too much memory; valiant sponges. Once trapped in there, it takes work to wring it free, and sometimes life is a jungle and the work just has to wait. Without our permission, and like salt from a shaker, little bits of it break loose when we’re jostled or tipped. Most of it stays in, telling us little stories about how we are foolish. (We really are not.)
And there is pain that shows off, out in the bones and tissue, or dancing across skin. When it is right there, right on the skin, it cannot be hidden from even the most strange of strangers. Every eye that lands on what happened knows – there was pain. There is pain. Our soft skin tells the story, like frail paper pulled from a gift bag. It spells out the vulnerabilities and leaves no lies.
I care for people, and that has been my work, too. Caregivers see things. We carefully collect the experiences, and they add up to something that makes us softer in some ways, harder in others, and therefore a little complex. I have sat with people in pain the strongest remedies could not touch, let alone break, and that is a bad feeling. When you have given the very last dose possible, and nothing is happening, it’s time to get brave. But first, you get scared.
A memory, late at night, sitting on the floor with my heart pounding and my shoulders rolled down and back, knowing I’d best get my game face on. Calmly, quietly, reading as many books as I had to, because there was naught else to do but help that little one have something to focus on between the waves that crashed over her, tumbling her into chaos.
The chaos, unbearable. Breathing, sitting tall, with the back of my skull, and all the bony points of my shoulders, hips, and spine pressed against the cool white bathroom tile. Waiting, nodding, handing her soft little sounds, “ok, ok, ok.” Not touching, not moving. Just waiting. Then, “Read To Me!” and I’d read again, until the next tumult.
Finally, a nod to the great spirit mystery, relief incomparable. Moving swiftly, silently, as she started to drift to sleep. Lifting her back to bed. Holding my breath. Comforting her mother. Slipping out to the hall. Writing it on her chart, a deep breath, walking back to my colleagues. Dropping some bravado, teasing about someone’s new love, laughing. But there is no forgetting.
Pain makes us feel uncomfortable – ours or others’. It’s normal to move away from discomfort. It makes us feel inadequate. We can’t avoid it. Life is discomfort. It will happen to us, or someone we love, or someone we know on Facebook. Pain makes a mess of us, and it exposes us all.
The day I saw burns on the delicate skin of one of my children’s nana’s hands, from the swelling that happened after her last chemotherapy, I held her hand like it was made of fine paper. I involuntarily exhaled, and it resonated across the collective memory pool. Though it comforted me to know the stories are all still there, safely cherished, it concerns me – for that body of work is deep and I am too happy a reservoir.
When someone is brave, and shows you, or lets you know, don’t lose your nerve. Take a minute, take as long as you need to, but still your beating heart, let your judgment (your fear) move through you and fall to the floor. Turn toward them. Shine some light and warmth onto their truth, and their pain, visible or invisible. You’ll need it too some day.
Let them know you see them, that we are all here, that we know it can’t be fixed. Tell them, you can see they’ve got this; and if they’ve lost sight of that, then sit with them a while. Be there. Be you. Be real.