I kept my questions casual when first talking with her.
Let’s say her name is Anne, which is not true. And let’s also say, to protect the proverbial innocent, that Anne’s friend’s name is Bryn. Both are in their early twenties. I met them because they were part of the physical therapy staff where I went for an irksome left knee. Anne and Bryn were friendly and efficient; they comfortably joked with patients, shared words of encouragement.
During a particular session, Anne was the one reminding me which exercise came next. She brought me the special flexible ball to help stretch my lower body, and later set the timer for how long I should be moving my limbs back and forth, side to side. I usually bantered with Anne (or Bryn), though sometimes I silently, steadily plowed through the required series of exercises.
When finished with a routine, I asked Anne the question that led to the question.
“Didn’t Bryn tell me that she started working here because you recommended her for the job?”
Anne grinned. “Right. She graduated from college and wasn’t sure what to do next.”
“How’d you two meet?”
Anne paused. (Or did she? Do I now, recalling our brief exchange, add a pause?)
“Bryn was good friends with my fiancé. He died a couple of years ago.”
Anne, who seemed—because she was—young and vibrant and bubbly, had quickly revealed the worst news of her life. We continued talking quietly while several other patients like me worked their shoulders or knees or hands, all trying to recover from damaged bodies. With brief words, Anne talked about her fiancé dying in a motorcycle accident, and how important the support of family and friends (like Bryn) had been and continued to be. I mentioned my work at hospice, of spending time with those who were dealing with the death of a loved one.
I think now—though this is only a guess—that Anne had other conversations like the one with me. Maybe earlier encounters included tears, or involved her avoiding (for as long as possible) saying that someone she loved had tragically died. But maybe at this point she no longer wanted to conceal her past grief, which is also her present and ongoing grieving. If someone asked about her life—to know her a little better, to deepen the relationship—she wanted that person to hear her hardest truth. Her words were like a sentry on the wall, warning about an approaching threat. (But again, I’m guessing.)
Her fiancé had been killed because of the negligence of another driver. Once a soldier in Afghanistan, he’d survived tours of duty only to return and die on a “safe” suburban street. He and Anne had plans and dreams, and now she told his (and her) terrible story to me. One day alive. The next day . . .
Anne thanked me for listening. She smiled. It was an honest smile, guileless and unwavering. Still with that smile, she reminded me to get started with my next exercise. No slacking! Tough woman! Moments later, Anne swung by the raised table where I was finishing a sequence of leg lifts.
She whispered, “See the gentleman over there?”
He looked to be in his late sixties, perhaps early seventies. He was lean, seemingly in good shape. As he stepped up onto a stair-shaped platform—up and down, up and down—I detected a hitch in his right knee. He, like me, was struggling with a leg injury and recovery.
“He lost his wife a week-and-a-half ago,” Anne continued in her whisper. “So, so sad.”
I did my final leg lifts. Out of the corner of my eye I glanced at the lanky man with the slight weakness in his right knee as he stepped up and down. And then repeated the motion.
Anne departed to assist a newly arrived patient.
Many injuries are easily seen. Others, like grief, remain unseen. Some injuries, with hard work, will heal. Others persist, a hitch in the soul.
We ask “innocent” questions. How important it is to wait for and listen to the honest answers.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by