Last week, my wife had to travel to Seattle for a dear friend’s funeral. A couple days after she left, her mother, who lives about seven minutes away from our home, fell and broke her hip. She lives alone. After my second call to her house with no answer, I figured something had gone wrong, and sure enough, she had fallen. She’d been lying there for two hours, unable to move.
So the past week has been a sort of fog of 911, ER, admission to hospital, surgery, recovery, and, a couple days ago, transfer to the rehab facility where they will try to get her in good enough shape to return to her independent life. Elena was able to get back a day early, outrunning Seattle’s forecasted “blizzard of the century”.
My practice of late has been to be present. Correction. My practice has been to notice how much of the time I’m not present. It’s clear to me now why I always have with me a rollerbag full of books, knitting, my computer, power cords, etc. I am terrified of being present. I need something to do, at all times. This is not presence. It’s proactive distraction.
So now, Elena and I are facing an indeterminate period of hospital visits, during which we want to comfort her mother, help her heal, see her through an incredibly painful rehabilitation, hopefully back to her former fierce independence in her own home. Elena’s spending the nights in the hospital (the pain meds cause disorientation, and Mrs. T gets very agitated; we’re afraid that in an attempt to “go home,” she’ll fall out of the bed and re-injure herself). I’m spelling her during the day.
This is someone I dearly love, and if there’s any way I can alleviate her suffering, I want to do it. And even so, it’s hard. It gets boring. Already I see my own ego flipping out. This happens in little invisible ways. Thanks to the presence of wifi at the hospital, I can check email or roam around on Facebook all I want. Or I think of a million excuses to get away from the hospital bed. I excuse myself for the ladies room, close myself in and play Angry Birds on a muted iPhone for a little too long. Stuff like that.
This is not the comforting, healing, encouraging presence I want to be for Mrs. T. Granted, just being there with your body for eight hours at a shot counts for something. But that’s just showing up as some kind of convincing hologram of yourself, blinking and speaking but not being…present.
Yesterday, though, it was different. Somehow it was ok. I realized this is who I am and how I show up. These are my quirks. Yesterday for once, it wasn’t Me Falling Short Of My Ideals. It was just…me. Me with the rollerbag. Me with the angry birds. But that’s not all. In this soup of who I am, there is also the one who took Mrs. T on a wonderful slow journey in the wheelchair all around the rehab center. We looked at the paintings. We looked through the windows to the sunny outdoors, cold and beautiful…We even went into the large, empty activities center where there was a piano, and I sat down and improvised some Mrs. T Getting Better music for a while. When we got back, we watched some Groundhog Day on the tv, and it made me laugh all over again.
It was her first day of physical therapy, so pretty soon the sweet morning turned into a very hard afternoon. She was in an enormous amount of pain. Being present involves being with. No fixing, changing, helping. Just being with. And one of the hardest things to do is to be present with a loved one who is suffering. So, this was hard. But if I can just sit nearby and be aware of all my feelings (compassion, fear, boredom, etc.), all my strategies and judgments…if I can bow to them, let them be my teachers, then I’ve stopped fighting myself. And that’s the beginning of being present. Such a relief. And I keep learning this over and over, every day…