Today is Thanksgiving here in Canada. In the spirit of the day, here's the story of one man's undying sense wonder and gratitude, against all odds.
Happy Thanksgiving! With love, rosemary
One day about ten years ago, I was working my regular shift as a visiting nurse in the city. It was steamy midsummer, an asphalt-melting day, and the traffic was awful. On top of that I was sick, and wasn't coping well with the demands of my heavy caseload of patients. All in all I was meeting the difficulties of the day with not so much grace and goodwill as I would have liked.
Minutes before the end of my shift, my pager went off. I was being asked to make an extra visit to an elderly patient who needed extensive wound care to both legs, as his regular nurse had been called home on a family emergency. The dressing change would take a good hour. Somehow I summoned up the will to make that last visit, my seventeenth of the day.
I had never met the patient I'd been asked to see, but found the address in a run-down west-end neighborhood. A volunteer from Meals On Wheels arrived at the door of the ramshackle old Victorian at the same time as I did, and as there wasn't any answer to our repeated knocks we opened the door and stepped inside. The volunteer went first with the meal tray, and I came close behind with my medical bag and supplies. The scene that greeted us was surreal: dusky darkness revealed the outlines of looming stacks of boxes and garbage bags, bicycle wheels and rusted tools, newspapers and broken bits of furniture piled from floor to ceiling. There was a narrow path through the debris, just passable by one person. Tiny, dark shapes skittered through the shadows at our feet as we passed, and the smell was nauseating. I stopped to put on a surgical mask and offered one to the volunteer. Halfway through the front room, the volunteer began to tremble. She set down the tray, uttered a tortured, breathless apology and bolted for the door. Great; at least there was safety in numbers. Now I was alone. I knew I could call for a police escort if I truly felt endangered, but that would take time, and I was running out of strength. I decided to push on.
I made my way back to the kitchen, where I came upon a lovely-looking old white-crowned gent sitting fast asleep in a wooden chair. All around him the counters were littered with small piles of garbage, dirty dishes covered in mould, old food containers and the like.
I greeted "Mr. O" by name, but he didn't respond. I called out to him - still no response. I thought at that point that he might have passed on, so I went closer to check his vital signs. Finding that he still had a pulse, I yelled into his ear a couple of times and he finally stirred. Once awake, he was lovely and gracious - and almost completely deaf. One more challenge! The old fellow laboriously extricated himself from his chair and led me to his bedroom, where he could lay down for his treatment. I anticipated the same scenario there as elsewhere in the house, but instead found a tiny, sun-filled "back porch" room which Mr. O's regular nurse had set up for him to receive his care in. Bless her heart; it was clean and orderly, and all the necessary supplies were there. What ensued was a long session of bending over the low bed, cleansing and dressing the many leg wounds while shouting at the top of my lungs in response to Mr. O's friendly questions, all the while sweating like a champ in the 35 degree heat.
I was completely drained by the end of the visit. Mr. O, having perched himself on the edge of the bed, continued his friendly chatter as I cleaned up the room and got ready to leave. Finally he asked:
"May I tell you something?" then waited for me to give him my full attention.
"Of course, anything" I responded. He went on:
" I have a sister in M__________. She's very wealthy... has lots more money than I've ever even seen in my whole life. But she won't even speak to me because I'm poor and have to live like this; she's embarrassed by me. But you know what? She's the one who's poor. She thinks she's rich, but she's poor, because she has a bitter and selfish heart. It's I who am rich. Would you like to know why?"
He smiled beatifically at me... he had the look of a child who’s bursting with a secret. His eyes sparkled; his heart and soul shone in them.
"Why?" I ventured.
"May I sing for you?" he asked me then, the innocent smile never leaving his face. Here I have to admit I was a bit taken aback. All I could imagine given Mr. O's age (late 80's) and deafness was that it surely would be some pretty awful caterwauling that would issue forth once I gave the go-ahead. But it seemed to mean so much to him, so I steeled myself inwardly, smiled back at him and told him I'd be delighted to hear him sing.
That was all he needed. Before I could draw a breath, the room rang with a voice so sweet and extraordinary that it jolted me like an electric shock - the utter beauty of it searing, crystalline... and so profoundly incongruous with that impoverished environment. My tears came fast and in my heart I felt myself humbled to my knees. Encouraged by my reaction, Mr. O sang on and on, and in his songs and hymns were the mountains and rivers and flowers of his native Wales, unfolding in colours more real than any that could have been captured on canvas or film.
I stood transfixed, beyond time and circumstance, lifted into Mr. O’s world. He had spoken the truth: he was, indeed, a rich man. As for me, I was far richer for having met him.