Silence was the fourth presence in the room.
"E" hung back -- a reasonable stance for a junior in high school who was spending her first day as an AIDS hospice volunteer and about to assist with her first bed bath. The nurse had suggested that perhaps “V", the new resident had suffered from a nervous disorder prior to acquiring AIDS, given that she came to us from a nursing home and was clearly not over 40 years of age. We were all in one small not-quite-a-hospital-but-not-really-a-home room. Both women said very, very little.
I, on the other hand, was supposed to be in charge. "E" had agreed to help(since she was the only other female volunteer this day and we feared “V” might be even more timid around men). I promised that I expected only what she felt comfortable doing and, quickly pointed out, that I served as a volunteer for 7 years before I took on the role she was about to do. I hoped it brought her comfort to know that, but there was little sign of discomfort or anything else coming from her. My buddy and cohort had already noted to me privately that the girl seemed almost devoid of personality.
Thus the silence in the room.
I indicated “V” should speak up if I hurt her in any way as we prepared for the bath. She said she would. She never did. But she also never said thank you for the extra foot massage and lotion we applied. (And yes, it was “we.” After only a few quiet moments, "E" stepped right up when I needed her to fetch a towel or extra pair of socks. Then when she was putting the clean socks on, she asked “V” if she wanted lotion further up the leg I had initially worked on. When “V” said yes -- and that was all she said -- "E" took care of things.)
“V” did speak up when she needed to pee – which she did in the bed pan I provided. "E" was out for towels at the time and missed the moment – And yes, I’m referring to the speaking, not the peeing.
The interesting part of the story to me is that I lived in the silence and I cleaned the bed pan. Ten years ago when our little care group started volunteering at the hospice, I gagged at the thought of bodily fluids and would clean numerous toilets, wash clothes all day, and cook pounds of bacon in order to do my part without having to be in the room for baths, diaper changes or wound care. Ten years ago I thought all voids needed to be filled with words of some sort.
Today, I realize comfort takes many forms – including the presence of silence.