The Kindness of Strangers
…let us not grow weary in doing what is right,
for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.
So then, whenever we have an opportunity,
let us work for the good of all,
and especially for those of the family of faith.
As I write this in the early morning hours of August 3, I am in my mother’s room in the Palliative Care wing of Baptist Hospital East in Louisville. If the phrase “palliative care” does not immediately register a connotation for you, here’s what that means: we have crossed the point where therapeutic measures will be taken. It is now about comfort. It means that, while we still do not know how long this leg of the journey is, at the end will not be a return to the status quo ante, at the end will not even be something that could be described as a partial recovery; at the end of this particular journey will be the end of my mother’s life this side of eternity.
As that reality has gained its current state of crystal clarity this week, it has become more and more apparent that what she is facing is not something for which a new med or a good night’s sleep is a solution. I think I had been suspicious (afraid?) of this outcome since she suffered a stroke on July 14. Her health had been in fairly sudden and rapid decline for about two months, but the stroke was the heaviest blow.
Since then, it’s been a journey of ups and downs, confusion and even some levity, and during much of that time my mother and all of us were (with apologies to Tennessee Williams) dependent upon the kindness of strangers. I’ve thought in these last couple of weeks and particularly these last couple of days of the many “strangers” (people previously unknown to us) who impacted this journey. Specifically, my mother has received (with very few exceptions) extraordinary nursing care. We have been blessed beyond measure to be in the care of nurses and nursing assistants who tended well to her physical and medical needs, but who did so with (is there any other word?) love. Even though we were not the “patient,” they also dealt with my father, my sister, and me with honesty and compassion and (yes, here’s that word again) love.
I know you don’t know any of them, but I want to list the names of these strangers who loved their way into our hearts as a way of honoring them: Kathy, Shellie, Kirstan, Rebecca, Marisa, Amie, Karla, Robyn, John, Ly (pronounced “lee”), and Torie (whose prayer over my mother and for my Dad as they were preparing to move to Palliative Care was one of those moments when the veil is torn back and heaven and earth are briefly, tantalizingly one). Cheri and Vicki and Katie in Palliative Care have already been amazing medically and emotionally. Dr. McCracken (who in my state of advanced years looks like he needs a note from his mommy to practice medicine) did an amazing job of walking my Dad through the medical realities as he made the decision about palliative care, a walk filled with compassion and honesty.
Sitting with my mother over many nights the last three weeks, I’ve had a chance to think about many things. As I considered the kindness she was receiving from so many “strangers,” and as I considered the influence of my mother on my life, my mind kept going back to one “stranger” whose kindness I remembered afresh and whose kindness I have been reminded anew to be grateful for. I wish my mother had been where we could have talked more about this, as I find my memory now not as clear on this as it should be. Anyway, the story as I remember it:
My mother did not have the greatest of childhoods. Her parents divorced in a time when there was more stigma attached to that for children than there is today. Responsibility for younger siblings thrust on my mother at an early age. She and various combinations of siblings were bounced around from relative to relative on both sides of the family at times. It was never a stable situation financially for her. That said, I don’t know that she would have described it as an unhappy childhood – you just don’t know better when you’re living in the midst.
By the time she entered junior high (as it was called back in those long ago days), seventh through ninth grades, though, she well knew she was not one of the blessed, one of the elite. One day in Home Ec class, someone of more social standing openly mocked my mother. (Yes, there were “mean girls” even in the late 1940s!) I’m sure that for a split second my mom’s self-esteem was exploding into a million pieces. But in that split second, the teacher intervened in a way that simultaneously affirmed my mother’s worth and sent the other girl sprawling down off of her high horse of false superiority.
But more, that teacher, Pearl Davis, became from that moment a mentor to my mother, taking her under her wing, encouraging her academically and socially through the rest of junior high and even on through high school. She saw potential in her and affirmed that on a consistent and ongoing basis.
I remember Pearl Davis as a much older woman because some times when we’d go to Lexington to see family when I was a child, there would also be a visit to Miss Davis for her and my mom to reconnect. My memories are of a distinguished but warm woman. I know also there were regular exchanges of cards and letters between her and my mother over the years. I want to say (I have vague memories of this…) that when I would accomplish something in the early years of my schooling, a congratulatory note from Miss Davis might soon arrive. I imagine the same was true for my sister.
I do not think I have thought of Pearl Davis for many years. The visits stopped probably when I was about junior high age. Maybe I just got to an age where I didn’t tag along anymore. Maybe Miss Davis had died. I just don’t remember. After Miss Davis and her influence on my mother returned to my mind these last couple of weeks, I’ve thought many times, as I said earlier, that I wish my mom were in a state that I could pull up some more details out of the well of memory.
It occurs to me that despite the fact that in many ways Pearl Davis is a stranger to me, she is a big part of why my mother is who she is, and thus is a big part of why I am who I am. I do not think it is overstating it to say that Pearl Davis made a difference for good in my mother’s life and that, in turn, made a difference for good in my life.
Who is your Pearl Davis? Be sure to tell them thank you.
To whom are you being Pearl Davis? You never know how far your influence might go. And that is particularly so when your influence on them is influenced by Jesus Christ’s influence on you.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord;
so then, whether we live or whether we die,
we are the Lord’s.