Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Can I get a witness?

"Life's work is to wake you up, to let the things that enter your life wake you up rather than put you to sleep. The only way to do this is to be open, be curious, and develop some sense of sympathy for everything that comes along, to get to know its nature and let it teach you what it will."--Pema Chodron

I haven't talked about my new friend, Linda, the 63 year-old woman who I was matched with for friendly visits. I was at first apprehensive because 63 seemed too young to be in a volunteer program for seniors. There are 63 year-olds sailing on yachts, climbing pyramids in Mexico and mountains in New Hampshire. For the less fortunate, there are even 63 year-olds who work because they can't afford to retire.

But when I met Linda, I understood. She has legs that are swelled up like buoys, and her eyesight is poor (she told me she was once declared legally blind but then her eyesight improved slightly.) Linda is on disability and I was surprised to discover that she lives in Section 8 housing, which I didn't think even existed in my town. She has groceries delivered every other week and a woman comes once a week to check in on her and to clean the place. Otherwise, she mostly stays home alone.

She seemed very happy to see me, which put me at ease. She talked about her love of cats (her own cat plus the many stuffed cats and cat paraphernalia with which she surrounds herself.) We didn't hit on any touchy subjects like religion or politics, although it eventually came out that she had voted for Obama (phew!) Her apartment is a small studio--just one main room, a bathroom, and a kitchen. She asked me if she thought she should move her stationary bike (which she wasn't using because she had broken her foot--another story) into the corner so she'd have more space in the main room. She debated back and forth about the virtues of moving the bike versus NOT moving the bike (It would get it out of the way and I don't want to lose my space by the window) I offered to move the bike for her to see what it would look like. She agreed and once the bike was situated in the corner, she seemed pleased. However, she later called and spoke with my husband, asking him to tell me she had moved the bike back because she missed her window view. She just didn't want me to be surprised the next time I came over.

And this is how it's gone with each of our visits--a quick decision to me becomes a major conundrum for Linda, worthy of a senate debate. Yesterday I visited and she was telling me about a duvet cover she had ordered from LL Bean. She said she couldn't get it to fit over her quilt. I told her I would help her, knowing full well that I too have a hard time with duvet covers. Throughout my efforts to put this darn thing on, she kept saying I don't think it's going to work. Oh, it's never going to fit like she was Eeyore watching the rebuilding of her house of sticks. Sadly, she was right. I told her if she didn't like it, she could always return it. This thought had evidently not occurred to her, and for the next 1/2 hour I was on the phone with an exceptionally chipper LL Bean customer service rep who was happy to go over the return policy with me. This brought another round of questions: Oh, it's probably too much trouble to return it. I'll need to buy a box. How much will that cost? Maybe I could just give it away. Do you want it?

Inevitably we put aside the LL Bean issue, having talked it to death with no firm action item. I found myself eating more and more of the caramel popcorn she'd put out for us, just to keep myself from blurting out something mean in pure frustration. Instead, I put on my therapist persona, sitting quietly and listening, making plenty of eye contact and asking questions. I'm learning patience. I'm learning to listen, with no expectations or agenda of my own. I have to remember that it's her life, and I'm just there to be a witness.

We all need a witness in our lives--my husband is mine. I tell him all sorts of pointless crap and he just listens. Yes, he really does listen--when I accuse him of spacing out, he's able to repeat back to me--verbatim--what I said. That's why he's such a thoughtful gift giver because he actually listens to my litany of wants (and that's a very LONG litany.) But his superb listening skills and uncanny memory can also work against me, like when I make a dutiful promise that I soon forget like "I'll take care of bringing the kitchen trash downstairs."

Before I left, Linda gave me a small package, a belated Christmas present, she said. It was wrapped in paper decorated with dogs and cats opening gifts (as if they could...c'mon.) Inside was a package of four Paper Mate pens. If my mother or aunt gave me a package of Paper Mate pens, I would have thought, wow, put a lot of thought into this, did you? But coming from Linda, I was touched. Not that she would have known, but the pens were the kind I like--black, clickable with soft grip pads. I was touched that she had thought of me after only knowing me a month... a total of 3 hours, really. I brought one of the pens to work and I plan to use it for all my handwritten enclosures.

You never know what unexpected lessons you'll receive from other people. I'm learning to be there for someone else who just needs someone to listen. Don't we all?

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