Friday, August 24, 2012

Pain, Parkinson's and Possibility

Phyllis was a spinster and lived alone. She had done so for most of her life. Now 83 years old, she occupied a single room in the nursing home where she resided with her collection of bedraggled plush toys, including "Kitty". Except for weekly visits by her kindly cousin, I was the only one who came to see her. It was never a particularly pleasant visit. But I was obliged to go.   Through a strange turn of events, I had become her lawyer and the only person she appeared to trust with her power of attorney. For the 12 years I had known her I rarely saw her smile, except when speaking to Kitty and her other stuffed animals that surrounded her in her bed. She would often break off our conversations to speak to Kitty as she lovingly caressed it. It used to purr, but the batteries died. The staff requested that I not buy new ones because Phyllis would have Kitty meowing at all times of the day and night, bothering the sensitive sleepers. 
When I entered her room on each visit, my opening question was almost always, "How are you today, Phyllis?" In response, subject only to being diverted by me onto other topics (or to speak to Kitty), she began reciting a litany of complaints. She described her aches and pains in unabridged and minute detail, which, she complained, the doctor had abruptly dismissed. There was the heavyset nurse who treated her roughly when moving her to and from her wheelchair. Then there were the grumbles about the lack of attention she received when she needed someone to help. She bemoaned the fact that no one came to visit her or take her for walks or drives. She even complained about her long-suffering cousin because, "She doesn't come often enough". And then, always, there was the complaint that "Kitty" was broken and no longer spoke with her. During the hour I spent with her, and despite her monologue of protests, I somehow managed to slip in the things I needed to tell her about her finances before I had to leave. I always felt guilty and heartless when I sensed the overwhelming urge to end my "visit" and leave her alone again to wallow in self-pity and no one tell about it except the mute Kitty. Perhaps that is why I always leaned over and gave her a kiss on the forehead before departing. I remember her bony hand gripping my hand more tightly as I sought to withdraw it in order to leave. I understood why she was lonely. The word "I" had effectively crowded out any interest in, or ability to communicate with, others. When she died there were a small handful of people at her funeral. They were the few that she left behind. 
Douglas was another story, although he was about the same age as Phyllis. He, too, had come to me some years earlier to assist him with some legal issues. Over time we grew closer, and he appointed me to be the executor of his estate when he died, and granted a power of attorney in case he became infirm. He had lived much of his life serving others. Even in his mid-80s he had a kind face that was often marked by a smile when he saw me coming to visit him. In fact, though chronic arthritic pain racked his body constantly, he always got up, dressed in a jacket and tie, and was waiting cane in hand to meet me when I rang the doorbell to his small suite. On every occasion, his skinny hands, only slightly bigger than Phyllis's, reached out to grip mine in a welcoming, firm handshake. I was afraid to return its firmness for fear of crushing the fragile bones I could feel in my palm. We would visit over cookies and a cup of tea that he had made. He wanted to know all about how my family was doing, how my legal practice was faring and what things I had planned for the future. It was only when I insisted that he became willing to talk about what was happening in his life. When asked he would give a cursory review of his current health situation (it was never good) before he turned to more pleasant subjects. He would often fondly reminisce about earlier days when we would take walks together, usually my then young children in tow. He told me about mutual friends that he kept in touch with. I enjoyed those times with Douglas. I felt encouraged, warmed and enriched when I left, somewhat begrudgingly resigned to the fact that I had duties to attend to. The he always asked me the same question just before I walked out the door. "Bob, is there anything I can pray about for you?" When he died the church was full of mourners, many of whom shed tears while telling stories about Douglas while we shared refreshments in the church hall after the service.

Phyllis and Douglas left lasting impressions on me. They both had suffered pain in their lives. But they couldn't have handled it more differently. 
Pain, whether due to Parkinson's or otherwise, will uncover one's priorities. It cuts to the core of who we are. It reveals the truth about each of us. Perhaps that is why we fear it. We crave the comfortable. We opt for the easy. Anything to anesthetize and avoid the aching. From childbirth to our final days, pain is the teacher we hate the most but from whom we learn the most.

Pain is no evil, unless it conquers us.
Charles Kingsley (19th-century author)


1 comment:

  1. A very insightful post and one close to home. My mother was very much like Phyllis which became worse as she became older. She lived with us for a while and it was a very difficult time. She had few friends who mourned her passing at the age of 84 because she did not cultivate friendship even when caring people tried to reach out to her. In contrast I lost a good friend to cancer and even when spending his last days in a hospice he always had a smile, a kind word or offered prayer no matter how much pain he was suffering from. When he passed just as with Douglas there were countless friends and family present to celebrate his life and mourn his passing.

    I too have learned a great deal from both of them.