Sunday, April 17, 2005

Paying Attention Pays Off

Yesterday I paid attention. Such is not always the case, but for once, I got it nearly right.

I started the morning at the hospice where I volunteer. Usually, I know who my fellow vols are but I'd lost the calendar and simply knew I was supposed to show up. When I arrived, I found that some of my favorites would be working alongside me and that there would be plenty of surprises.

Some of those surprises came in the form of people -- lots of people. We had workers in the hallway finishing up chair rails. We had volunteers in training on the floor above. We had two older women in the kitchen delivering both groceries and a meal for the day. And, later, I discovered a couple of folks painting rooms near the offices up front.

With that many people come stories.

For instance, one of our crew had brought a visiting nurse from Thailand. Her English was broken but she held her own and really lit up when she fed us Thai food she'd prepared and shared the story of her experience on a boat while the tsunami was actually HAPPENING! She and her twelve companions survived but she spent two days with very few clothes on what she pronounced as a nearby ice-land (island).

Another story came when I volunteered for a second time to assist with one of the resident's showers. His girlfriend stays with him most of the time and usually handles much of his care. I was told she doesn't allow men to assist her but she let me two weeks ago and agreed to do so again yesterday. Her boyfriend is very tall, no longer talking, mostly blind, very cute, white, and incapable of standing on his own. She is short, a little stocky, Hispanic, older than he, holding down two jobs, and dealing with a home that recently flooded, a daughter that is angry because mom threw the deadbeat boyfriend out of her house they all were sharing, and a mother of her own that reversed her role years ago and still relies on this woman to hold the family's feet to the fire. (When we took a break after giving the shower and wrestling with clothes for -- did I mention the boyfriend is TALL? -- the resident, I got the extended story including the brother with seven kids who doesn't work and does drugs with his now adult kids, the ex-husband cop who she hasn't lived with for 8 years but is cute and charming and probably going to jail, and much, much more.)

The hospice also became the backdrop for learning a little bit of the story of the nurse assigned for the day and the fact that one of the residents has a chocolate cake birthmark on his thigh . . . (I resisted pointing out to him that as an African-American any birthmark would probably resemble chocolate something. I'm trained to be sensitive like that.)

After the hospice I sped to a downtown open air exhibit that included works from around the world on the theme of coexistence. Each large canvas was accompanied by a quote that seemed to support or challenge the artwork. As my friend and I explored each piece, we caught each other up on our latest life happenings. More stories, more enjoyment.

And then I missed it.

As I was concentrating on the printed words beneath one billboard, I heard, not too far away, "M'am? Say m'am?"

My mind immediately went to the fact that I was holding my wallet in my hand, that this was downtown and that panhandlers often interrupted my walks or meals in the area asking for "just a few dollars for the bus." I just didn't feel up to the give and take, so I ignored the voice and quickly moved across the park to reconnect with my friend.

From my now safe distance, I looked back to see what my would-be encounter might have been. The only possibility was a man sitting on a bench directly behind the billboard I'd been so intent on understanding. The seated man was obviously blind.

Fear kept me from the story of the blind man at the art show.

I pray I pay more attention next time.

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