About two weeks before Thanksgiving, I got a new patient: a diabetic who lived in a housing project in southwest metro. One bright morning, I arrived at this particular project. It was on a steep slope, and seemed in good condition, perhaps built in the 80’s as opposed to the 50’s. It wasn’t a re-built hotel either. It looked like regular, low-income apartments. I felt pretty good about this. I wandered around for a bit, searching, found the apartment, and knocked. This was always such a tension-filled moment. Who will this person be? What smell will waft out to assault me? Will I be greeted with happy gratefulness that someone is coming to help them, or will I be met with suspicion?
A tall, solid lady with braids answered the door. There is a look that I have come to recognize in this business: the look of a poor black person when a professional white girl is standing at their door. Mistrust. Resentment. In that moment, I feel the burden of slavery, lynchings, segregation and separation of mothers from children, racial slurs, intolerance, and the despicableness of white supremacy. I have about 30 minutes to overcome all of that, and assure them that I am trustworthy, will not belittle them, and really am here to help. I smile through the insurmountable burden up into her brown eyes. I want to do this. I want to somehow, in a tiny way, break through the barrier that separates us. I know I am not capable, but I have to try. I am aware that I will never be able to enter this world, to understand it, to truly sympathize. Her history is not my own. The problems she faces on a daily basis will never be mine. There will always be the knowledge that there is a horrific chasm separating us. I cannot bridge it. But maybe I can drive a nail somewhere that might help someone else put the next board in. And perhaps they will be able to look beyond me and my poor efforts and see something Greater, some hope for the future.
“I’m Sarah-the nurse from home health. I’m here to see Mr. Franklin.” She opens the door a bit wider and asks me to come in. I see that the initial surprise is gone, but there is some reluctance clinging in the corners of her actions. “He’s back in his room. Come on.”
People’s homes are always surprising. This one, for instance. One whole side of the room was solid plants. All sorts of beautiful potted green indoor plants. “Wow!” I say, “You have some green thumb! These are beautiful!” “Yeah, I love plants.”
“I can tell. Wonderful!” We walk through the green glow of the room, the smell of dirt and leaves, the sheen of the light reflecting off the leaves, and turn a corner. In a second, it all changes.
I had walk into what feels like a tiny chapel of hate.
I am facing an enormous red poster of a man whose fist is raised in the salute of the Black Panthers. It is a dark wood-paneled room full of the brown haze of smoke. There were two double beds pressed against either wall, and in the right one sat a man with a cigarette in one hand, a book in the other, one leg missing, and huge brown eyes which would have been beautiful if they were not so filled with loathing and rage. He hates me. I know it. I imagine he spends his time sitting in this room, thinking, forming dangerous theories, stewing in hate and bitterness for the loss of his power, his life, his worth, finding someone to blame. His wife stands to the side, watching me somewhat fearfully. This is it. In this moment I can prove all the things he believes about white people, or I can help weaken the foundation of his belief. I am pretty sure its going to be the former. I feel scared and sick. He is not speaking. I cannot.
Then I notice his glucometer. I look again at his face. It is ashy. He turns to sit on the side of the bed, and his stump comes out from under the covers. Here is the task. “Can I sit on this bed?” I ask, pointing to the double bed on the right. He acts surprised. He nods curtly. So there we sit, facing each other, knees to knees, with his wife standing nearby, and the Black Panther poster hanging between us, discussing diet, medicine and things he can do to feel better and be healthier. I tell him laughingly that he needs to stop smoking. He looks incredulous. “I suppose it’s better than something else you could be smoking, and I know it is one of the few pleasures you have. But, I have to say it.” He nods. He is very suspicious, that never changes throughout the visit. I ask if they have family support, and they do. I say “Oh that’s nice. My family all lives elsewhere.”
Bolstered by some unknown thing that has occurred since I entered the apartment, the woman forgets herself and the burden of the possible disastrous situation and blurts out- “Oh, you poor thing! Come have dinner with us!” I look at her. This is the last thing I ever expected. The gratefulness I feel for her is overwhelming. At that moment, she has adopted me. I have become the needy one. She is the one entering my world, outnumbered and insufficient for the task. She is motivated by concern for something that is greater than either one of us. That each has a family to gather with. She wants to bring me into her world where she can give me what is most important there. Family. We have crossed each other’s lines by simply loving. There is incalculable worth in the moment that you step out with no preconceived plan, no ulterior motive, just that burning, courage-giving, impulsive yearning to meet a need. No, larger than that. The same impulse that causes the piercing, tearing, straining moment when the mother gives birth: the last action of a man who jumps in front of a bullet to save his comrades life: that pushes every frightened groom to blurt out the words “I do:”
These moments are afforded us every day. They are moments that have the potential to expand into wonder. Whether we embrace them depends upon many factors, not the least of which is self-consciousness. But when we forget ourselves and act out of love for someone else- that instant is Life. The aftermath, however, is rather uncomfortable. I wondered if she wanted to take it back- wondered if my surprise registered with her as distain or disgust, when it simply was surprise. I hated to tell her I had plans in case she thought I was just blowing her off, and at the same time, I longed to tell her I had plans to afford her a way out of this offer. The truth was that I did have plans. I told her in a moment of inspiration that I could ask the office to schedule me, and I would come out on Thanksgiving. That was fine with her. We both turned to the man. He shrugged- non-committal.
Two weeks later I went to the house on Thanksgiving, and wished I had not asked to be scheduled for that day, thinking that she was probably inside wishing the same thing. I had little hope for the connection that occurred, due to the pesky interference of common sense and reason. I walked in, said “Happy Thanksgiving” and bit my lip. She said “Happy Thanksgiving” and led me back to his room. No table set, no festive décor, just the greenhouse atmosphere, and a slight odor of sweet potatoes. I took his blood pressure, made idle chit chat, and became increasingly doubtful of what had occurred the week before. I checked his sugar, asked about his book, made a comment revealing my naivety and immaturity. Then the most marvelous and wonderful thing happened. He smiled and laughed. I laughed with pure delight mingled with relief. His wife, with a look of amazement, laughed. The moment had mattered. It had been counted and added as gain to all of us.
I was thankful.
I hope you find Joy in your Gratitude this holiday season.