2023 Grateful 40: Small kindnesses

The hospital ward. Six beds. Six men. Six men who might well have been born in six different decades. There is always a ward attendant on duty. Sometimes, two. Their job is to make sure the six men are okay, looked after. If they need a nurse or a doctor they summon help. I know them all by name. It’s important. It’s the least of the small kindnesses – to address someone by name.

They know my name, too. We chat.

The man in bed X is a foul-mouthed, belligerent so-and-so who can go from nice to nasty in two seconds flat. He’d turn on a sixpence. He has the stature of a jockey gone to seed. He hates the world and everyone in it and he’s not shy about letting the world know.

The ward attendant on duty today is a lovely Filippino woman. She has a softness about her that belies the weariness wrung out by twenty years of caring.

The man in bed X calls her a whore. A prostitute. A c*&t. He shouts and roars abuse. No one pays any attention. But ignoring him seems to make things worse. I go over and ask him if he’s enjoying making life miserable for the other patients and the staff. He says he is. Enjoying it. And that if I keep talking he’s going to belt me one. What’s it to me, anyway.

I tell him I’d like to be able to have a conversation. To hear myself think. He tells me where to go. The attendant tells me to ignore him, to leave him be. He goes to sleep. The resulting quiet had nothing to do with me or what I said and everything to do with him wearing himself out with the anger and the rage.

He awakens an hour later and picks up where he left off. He slithers out of the bed onto the floor and then has to wait for three people to hoist him back into the bed. It takes three and a hoist because he won’t cooperate. He’s determined to make life difficult.

I asked H how she copes. She says she’s used to it. After 20 years there’s nothing she hasn’t seen. She says it’s not him – it’s his illness. There’s good in everyone, she says. A poem comes to mind by Danusha Laméris. Small kindnesses. I dig it out. To share. My gift to you this Easter.

 Small Kindnesses by Danusha Laméris I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you” when someone sneezes, a leftover from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying. And sometimes, when you spill lemons from your grocery bag, someone else will help you pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other. We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot, and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder, and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass. We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here, have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”

As I leave, he starts to roar again. ‘Hello’ he shouts. ‘Hello, hello, hello, hello, hello, hello …’ And then the quiet fellah in the corner, him whom I’ve never heard speak  responds: ‘Is it me, you’re looking for…’

The place erupts. Even yer man has to laugh.

Grateful for the small kindnesses.




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