Service in the Long Hall
Service in the Long Hall
“Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth. It is the very purpose of life, not something you do in your spare time.”
- Shirley Chisholm (passionate activist, educator, and groundbreaker who was the first African-American citizen to run for President of the United States…in 1972, by the way)
These words have got me thinking about the nature and meaning of service. It can mean everything from the vocations we pursue (customer service, human service, landscape service, mail service) to the voluntary giving of oneself in support of another.
In fact, even the idea of “volunteerism” can be broken down into types of service – one may serve an organization (like a library, museum, or service agency) or one may serve an individual or a family in a personalistic way. It is this deeply personal idea of serving upon another person which is driving my thinking today, as I offer myself to my favorite and only Aunt Lou in a time of great vulnerability.
At the moment, she is recovering from a stroke and a series of difficult situations, and is staying in a nursing home for 10 days as her family plans for her return home. My Aunt Lou is a woman who simply will not be institutionalized in her mind, or her body. This makes her particularly at risk as she simply will not “get with the program” . Because we know and love Aunt Lou, we also know she needs to be safeguarded night and day, and have done so.
I had this heartbreakingly poignant moment with her yesterday. As is often the case with human service environments, there is a strong staff culture at the nursing home where she is staying. Day and night, there is a lot of friendly talk. laughing. and joking amongst the nurses, aides, social workers and others. Some of the people who are living in the nursing home enjoy the repartee, and try to be a part of it. It mostly seems to annoy and confuse my Aunt Lou, who looks at me with a knowing hard look when it happens.
When visitors come, she will say, “You will not believe what has happened to me”. This is no small talk, either. The words are sometimes a long time coming, but with focus and time, they do come. The bells and buzzers and alarms and chatter are constant and terribly distracting to Aunt Lou. They also are frightening and foreign to her, and rob her of her competencies, because she cannot easily hear or attend.
She is intent on walking, and walk we did yesterday, as she regains her strength, works hard to get her bearings and struggles to understand how life went so bad so quickly for her. On the walk (as she calls it “down the lane”) down an endlessly long hallway and maze of confusing passages and doorways, we passed the busy and active nurse’s station. As is usually the situation, many people in wheelchairs encircle the perimeter, perhaps enjoying the staff-centered action that is happening in front of them.
Moving forward with determination, but so fragile at the moment, Aunt Lou tenses as the staff burst out in uproarious laughter. She takes a stagger step, which nearly upends us both. Whatever has happened, it is very, very amusing to those involved. The clustered onlookers laugh as well, but are not part of the joke, at least not fully, and they seem tentative.
A flash of confusion comes over my strong Aunt’s face, you can see it quickly changes to a more determined look as she puts her head down, bears down on her walker, and moves more quickly. The aide who is walking alongside us, in explanation, mentions that the joke is that one of the nurses just “broke wind”, although that is not the language she used. It is one of Aunt Lou’s euphemisms. As we keep moving, the uproar continues behind us.
The trip through the confusing, endless hallway continues, but something has changed. Aunt Lou seems somehow smaller, tentative, unsure of herself. We finally make it to a grouping of chairs and sit next to each other. She keeps glancing at me as if for reassurance. 20 minutes go by, and by now her hands are trembling. The words come out, eventually. She finally just had to ask. “Betsy, did I break wind?”
I was nearly overcome with empathy as I realized the impact that the scene at the nurse’s station had on my Aunt Lou.
What does it take to give personal, respectful service to another human being? Can it be done in group settings which require people to conform, and there are people in the role of “staff” who are trying as best they can to cope with a situation which is hard to bear? For me, if I am going to have a professional relationship with vulnerable people, it seems urgent for me to have some relationships with a few people over the long haul who live on the margins, and for whom I have no professional obligation to at all. Shirley Chisholm had great personal empathy for and identification with those at the bottom of the social ladder. I suspect she also had personal relationships which made her keenly aware of the need to stand beside and behind people.
My Aunt Lou has always been a powerful role model to me – she raised 6 children on her own, on a social worker’s salary, by the way. She is strong, capable, so smart, and like me, a rugged “horsewoman” and a strong Quaker. The things she is showing me now hurt, but it is the kind of hurt that will strengthen my ability to keep in focus the importance of personally being of service.