Carol A. Hand
It has been weeks since I have had time to post and April has flown by. I have had brief respites to simply observe beauty.
I have also made it a priority to spend time with my daughter and grandchildren when possible.
Mostly, though, I have been working on the two classes I am teaching this semester.
Saturday, as I prepared for the macro practice class I co-teach with a colleague, I was lost in a stream of consciousness moment when one thought lead me down a path of memories that didn’t seem to have any logical connections other than my long life. As I put skin cream on my legs after my shower, I noticed my right knee once again. It’s still a bit puffy despite the decades that have passed since it was injured when I was taking care of Rita. Thinking of Rita always reminds me how precious and unpredictable life is.
Rita was a tiny woman when she contracted the brain cancer that was killing her slowly despite operations, radiation treatments, and medications. Medications caused her body to become bloated and stimulated her appetite. By the time I was hired as a home health aide to help care for her during the last year of her life, she had gained a lot of weight. She needed assistance with self-care and walking. She was often lost in another world of thoughts but she did love to eat. She would often joke about the meals I prepared. Cooking has never been something I liked doing, but I tried my best.
I was warned to remain emotionally distant by my employer. “She’s going to die no matter what you do, so don’t get attached.” Despite the warning, I discovered something that has stayed with me when I teach. I learned to care about her deeply and let her know I cared in many ways even though I knew our time together was limited. I knew I couldn’t do anything to cure her disease, but I could bring “soft hands and laughter” into her life no matter how long or short it was meant to be. I would sit and listen to her talk, cook things she liked, and take her on excursions when she expressed a desire to get out of the house even for a moment.
Gradually, Rita lost her ability to walk and spent much of her time in bed. Toward the end of her life, when I was helping her move from her bed to the wheelchair she had to use at that point, she had a seizure. It was heavy lifting for me at the best of times. I weighed at least 30 pounds less than Rita. As I was lifting her that day, her body went rigid as she shook with powerful spasms. It wasn’t possible for me to lift her back on the bed or help her flex into a sitting position. With my arms wrapped around her body, all I could do was lower her gently to the floor, injuring my knee in the process. With gentle hands and a calming voice, I helped Rita relax and was finally able to get her to help me lift her into the wheelchair.
She lived far longer than predicted. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to be with her until the end because I planned to move soon to another state. When I let my employer know I would be moving a month in advance, they fired me immediately and brought in another aide. The family was angry and asked me to stay and hired me themselves to fill in the hours when the agency aide was not with Rita. I agreed to help as long as I could.
When I arrived for my first shift, I heard the new aide yelling. I peeked into Rita’s bedroom and saw the aide roughly slapping a washcloth over Rita’s face. At that point, Rita was in the final stages of her disease. She required total care and was unable to speak. I walked in to help the aide and let the family know what I witnessed. Within a week, Rita was gone.
Although I grieved her death, I knew that I had done the best I could to make her last year as kind and comfortable as possible. I realized that spending time with Rita was a gift. Being present in the moment and caring about others are especially important in times of transition. It lessened my sadness about loss.
My knee remained painful but surviving childhood abuse taught me how to function despite physical pain. Later, I learned that the injury resulted in “knee effusion, or water on the knee.” Although it was bruised, swollen, and stiff, I was still able to walk. A supportive, flexible knee bandage helped reduce the pain although it took more than a year to fully heal. Decades later, it’s still a little puffy but usually works just fine.
Perhaps my Saturday morning reminiscence about Rita was triggered by a frightening experience on Friday evening. I fell asleep curled up in my rocking chair, exhausted, after teaching the second to the last research class before the end of the semester. I awoke with painful cramps in my legs and was initially unable to walk. It was a frightening reminder of how unpredictable life can be. Thankfully the pain subsided quickly. (Next time I’ll take naps elsewhere!)
Reviewing student papers has meant hours of sitting in an uncomfortable chair, first reading original sources to make sense of student papers, and then, hours on the computer grading and commenting to help students learn how to read carefully and write clearly.
Like my experience with Rita, grading has been a mixed blessing. In the process, I learned a lot about access to safe, drinkable water around the globe. Someday, I hope I have time to synthesize what I learned from the kaleidoscopic assortment of research studies my students explored. The process of reviewing many different vantage points about the crises we are facing, however, reminded me to keep things in perspective.
One third of the world’s population is without access to potable water or sanitation at the household level (Cumming, Elliott, Overbo, & Bartram, 2014). One third! And we continue fracking, spewing out plastic garbage, pouring more toxic chemicals on farmlands, and building yet more weapons. I am so grateful for the opportunity to play a role in raising student awareness about these issues. Grading has also left little time for me to write or visit blogs. That is unlikely to change in the next few weeks before the semester ends.
Next semester I will have the privilege of working with the same group of students. Throughout my years of teaching, I have remembered to be mindful of the lessons Rita taught me.
Be present in the moment and care about each student.
I only have a short time to spend with each cohort of students before they move on with their lives. All I can do is my best and hope they will learn what they need to know while we are together so they are prepared to face a challenging and uncertain future with the ability to think critically and respond with caring creativity.
Oliver Cumming, Mark Elliott, Alicia Overbo, & Jamie Bartram (2014). Does global progress on sanitation really lag behind water? An analysis of global progress on community- and household-level access to safe water and sanitation. Plos One.