Thursday, June 20, 2019

Conversation Stoppers

My father-in-law never met a stranger.  He could turn to an unknown person standing behind him in line and start up a conversation.  He could turn to a person he had never met seated beside him in the theater or concert hall and begin visiting like a long-lost friend.

He had an enormous supply of “conversation starters.”  He might ask, “Have you lived in this area long?” or observe “Your hands look like they’ve seen some hard work over the years” or “Your accent reminds me of New York. Have you ever lived there?”  His “conversation starters” always conveyed his personal interest and curiosity about the unknown person.  Such an approach never failed to get the stranger talking about himself or herself like a new friend.

I admired my father-in-law’s ability to quickly and gently break through social barriers with his “conversation starters.”  But I wish I could consult with him about some problems I am currently having with “conversation stoppers”.

In my present state of declining health, I am discovering that common phrases I used to take for granted are becoming “conversation stoppers.”  That is, phrases such as “How are you?” temporarily stops conversation as I consider whether I should answer truthfully or kindly.  Does my friend really care enough to listen for 20 minutes to my description of my most recent breathing challenges and weakness?  Or should I be kinder to their limits of concern and time schedule and just answer “I’m OK.”

“Surely you’ll get better soon,” is another of those “conversation stopper” phrases.  How should I respond?  Should I answer honestly?  “Excuse me.  You don’t seem to understand my situation.  I’m not going to get better.  I am going to slowly and steadily get worse until I die!”  It is far kinder to say, “Thank you.  I hope so, too!”  Since I don’t like to upset friends or other people, that is my usual comeback.

Another “conversation stopper” I’ve had to deal with several times is the stranger who approaches me in a public place and asks,”May I pray for you?”  I am not used to being prayed for in public. On the other hand, I am deeply grateful for prayer support from my many friends, so innocently I’ve said “Yes.”  What has followed several times is a lengthy prayer spoken aloud in a commanding voice instructing God exactly what God is to do for me!

Now don’t misunderstand me, friends.  I believe in God and I believe in the power of prayer.  I even believe in God’s healing power, but I also believe that acceptance of God’s love - even in an unwanted form - is more important than demanding God to perform a miracle!  I must confess that these events embarrassed me.  After a quick and quiet “Thank you” I went looking for some private place where I could offer my apologies to God!

“Conversation stoppers” continue to pop up from time to time.  I have not yet figured out what to do with them.  Do you have any suggestions?

Thursday, June 6, 2019

I Know You!

On May 14, 2019 I was an outpatient at Mount Carmel St Ann’s Hospital in Westerville, Ohio for the surgical placement of a pacemaker. A friend had taken me to the hospital with a 7:30 am arrival for a 9:30 am procedure. After I was prepared for the procedure staff called my friend to sit with me until I would be taken for the surgery.

Following the placement of the pacemaker I returned to the same room as before for a time of recovery and observation. The nursing staff allowed my friend to spend some additional time with me before he needed to leave for an appointment. But they told him that I would be ready to meet him if he would be at the main entrance of the hospital at 3:30 pm.

I rested comfortably for those several hours and even enjoyed some tasty food and at least one nap. I remember looking at the clock at 3:00 pm and thinking that I was still in a hospital gown and had an IV in my arm. I began to wonder whether it would be possible to get dressed, go through all the discharge routines and still be at the main entrance by 3:30 pm. So I pressed the nurse call button. 

The call was answered by somebody whom I had not seen previously that day, but she explained that my nurse was helping somebody else. Was there anything she could do for me. I explained about the 3:30 promise and asked about getting dressed and the discharge, but she said wait another ten minutes.

Then, she looked closely at me and said, “I know you!” Quite honestly, I did not recognize her, but I told her all the units of the hospital where I had been in the last month related to my diagnosis and heart valve surgery and recovery.

No, she said, she had not been working any of those areas.

Well, I said, I had an aortic valve replaced in 2015.

“Yes,” she said, “I was working on One East at that time. I was on night shift the first night you were in the step-down unit and I was watching the monitors in the nurses station when you flat-lined.

I went running to your room and by the time I had gotten there you had come around all by yourself. Normally we need to do chest massage, but you revived all by yourself.”

She went on to tell how she called my wife with the update and how they transferred me back to the ICU for additional observation.

I had to acknowledge to myself that even though she recognized me after three and a half years, I did not recognize her. I thanked her profusely for recognizing me and for retelling that story.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Poverty Puzzle

My declining health has put us in a new and unfamiliar situation.  For the first time in our lives we are having to hire household help.  Our employed caregivers are only in our home for five hours each day because most of the time we can manage on our own,  But it’s been a learning experience for us in many ways.

Our caregivers are women, in their early 20’s or middle aged, and almost all of them are west African immigrants.  Some came to the States as children and others are more recent arrivals.  Quite a few are preparing for, or currently enrolled in, higher education, especially in nursing or social work.

They’ve given us a different outlook on the problems of poverty.  Listening to their stories, we learn how difficult it is for a single mother to raise four children by herself on minimum wage; the life-long effects of a chaotic childhood; the dire results of  disasterous marriages and unexpected pregnancies; the stresses of being profiled by police; the struggle to find the money to pay off a traffic ticket or to save for college; the trick to saving your job when your car has been totaled!  It’s the “personal and underside” of poverty that we are not used to seeing or hearing about.

It reminds me of a jigsaw puzzle my sister once had.  It was circle-shaped and on the top side showed a lovely nature picture of flowers and trees.  That same picture appeared on the back side of the puzzle, too, but at a 90 degree angle from the front!  So maintaining the proper perspective was essential to working out the puzzle.

Most of us who are fairly comfortable financially spend our time looking at the top of the poverty puzzle.  We probably agree with my nephew’s analysis when he was working with a home repair ministry in a poor section of a big city.  “The problem with poor people,” he would say,”is that they have no money!”  So, staring at the top side of the poverty puzzle, we decide the solution is that the poor should “get a job”, “stop buying alcohol and junk food”, “go to college and get a better education”, “stop having so many children”, and on and on with shallow advice.

However, there is another side to the problem of poverty: the underside of the puzzle where the angles of reality’s picture run differently than on the top side.  The poor are more familiar with this view where a dark skin is the same as a black mark; where prejudices and unwritten rules limit all available opportunities; where, despite many laws, housing, education, health care, and voting rights are limited.  The picture is not as pretty on the underside because it is in black and white.  White is considered normal and black is out of place.

One of the major differences between these two worlds is in what each values.  The economy of the wealthy on the top side of the puzzle counts value only in dollars and cents,  Anything that cannot be measured in dollar signs is not considered valuable.  Only money counts.

But the underside of the puzzle, the world of the poor, considers value in a different way.  There, compassion, community, and cooperation are as important as dollars and cents. Caring for one another, working together, and forming supportive networks is a kind of wealth they understand.  This is the currency that has enabled the poor to survive when money is scarce or absent.

I asked one of our hired helpers why so many of them from west Africa were attracted to such caregiving work.  She replied,” That’s what we do in our home country. We take care of our sick or aged family members in our homes.”  Community, compassion, and cooperation at work.

Sometimes this type of currency is forged into crime, violence or intoxicants because it, too, can be contaminated with the worship of money.  This economy of three Cs is mostly ignored by those caught up in the dollars and cents value system.

However, community, compassion and cooperation is a currency practiced worldwide wherever money is scarce.  People learn to care for others, especially family and neighbors.  They work together to solve problems and form communities from which any can draw help when needed.  Could it solve the poverty puzzle if we all could learn to value both systems?