Thursday, February 26, 2015

Woman With Open Eyes

(this was revised after critiques from class members on 2/24/15; thank you all!)

I was in a skilled nursing facility for a visit with Claire who now lived there.  Inside her assigned room that she shared with another women, I walked past her roommate who was lying in bed.  I said "hello" to the first woman who shared this room, but as usual, she did not respond, this woman lying in bed with her eyes open.  I walked on past her and toward her roommate, Claire. This was my monthly visit to take the Eucharist to Claire, an elderly female church member. I wanted to help the church in outreach activities and did so by taking communion to those not able to participate during services because they were home bound or in a nursing facility.  For many years, Claire had been a vibrant member of the church and she still wanted to continue with her active faith, although she was now unable to drive. 

Now Claire lived in this nursing home, rooming alongside the woman who did not speak and who often just lay in her bed with her eyes open. Each woman had a single bed lowered to the floor with a thin blue plastic safety mat placed next to the regular foam mattress to prevent serious injury if either rolled over too far on their beds.

At 94, Claire was infirm in body and mind, but was grateful for my visit and a time to talk. On good days, when her mind was sharper than usual and when she was fully awake, she sometimes mumbled along with me as I said “The Lord's Prayer” prior to administering the bread and wine, symbols of Jesus' blood and body shed for mankind. 

On this day, as I glanced over at Claire's roommate, I noticed once again her unfocused eyes and wondered if she were actually seeing anything, or if she were in a state of wakeful sleep. If she were looking at what was in front of her as she lay on her side in bed, she would have seen only an unadorned white closet metal door.

Did Claire's roommate, the one with the open eyes, have anything personal in that closet? Were there any clothes, nice shoes, or any other clues that might reveal something of the woman's life? A single box of tissues was placed on the bedside table next to the blank closet door, along with some latex gloves and hand wipes. A solitary reading lamp took up space next to the box of tissues, but I had never seen it switched on for illumination. In fact, the harsh fluorescent overhead light was rarely ever on. It was as if no one lived in her half of the room. No personal objects could be seen that proved a personality actually occupied this space.

Juxtaposed next to the rich life of Claire, who had trinkets, piles of cards, opened letters and accumulations of photographs, the open eyed woman had nothing. Claire had snapshots and a “thinking of you” card on her wall space, candy at the bedside, books and pamphlets in stacks on little bedside tables overflowing with abundance. Claire had a wardrobe full of skirts and tops, gowns and shoes. There was so much plenty there; drawers overflowing with objects of significance. An embarrassment of riches in comparison to that of the woman with the open eyes. And Claire could talk your head off about her teaching career in the 1950's or about her family; she was never at a loss for words. Then there was Claire's roommate who said nothing and seemed to have no personal item for personality identification.

On those occasions when I entered the doubly occupied room, not another person had ever been with Claire's roommate except for occasional staff. And even that did not happen except when necessitated by an action made by her instinctive bodily functions. There were no visitors, and no small tokens of friendship were ever left behind for the woman 
with open eyes, not even an artificial flower in a vase. What had been the life of this woman before she was supine, before she had come to this place, before her misfortune had placed her here, I often wondered. There was no one I could ask to tell me about her; no staff member would be allowed to share information about her because of the confidentiality rule. I knew her name because it was on the little plastic room identifier alongside Claire's, two names with the room number printed underneath. Sometimes I would whisper her name in prayer, as if to evoke a primitive blessing on the spirit of the woman with open eyes.

On the wall of her confined area hung a rather tired, faded picture. It was placed on a nail high above arms' reach on the wall in the space assigned to the woman. The scene in the picture did not have a personal feel to it, and was likely provided by the facility, one found at a second hand store or donated from a family care giver of a previous patient. It did not give color or personality to the woman's personal space. The small, dingy, copied landscape was not even well painted, and was faded from the sun, layered with the accretions of time and grime. It simply filled a negative wall space with its wooden frame. The sun did not reach as far into the room as where the woman lay, so the wood on the 
frame must have been damaged in a prior time and place.

I had some familiarity with this room, as another person whom I had previously known had also been an occupant of this room. This other, different person had been assigned to me in the past when I was an active hospice volunteer with a visiting therapy dog. It had been several years since I had been in this same room, but for a different purpose.

Going back to my prior working life as a mental health counselor, I had learned to observe clients in a rather clinical manner in order to be an objective and helpful therapist. Do not become a friend with the person you are helping; maintain psychological boundaries; be helpful but not intrusive; do not offer advice; do not get too personal; keep your distance. All good advice and necessary guideposts for a constructive relationship between client and worker. And also in this case, now in relationship between volunteer church member and communicant.

Knowing the floor of this room had carpeting of a sturdy nature, I was aware my heavy clog shoes clumped weightily when I walked. The clogs made unfriendly, noisy sounds and besides, the shoes made me unstable, so unsteady that I had to put my feet down precisely, keeping my ankles from wobbling in order not to trip or waver on the short walk into the room to visit Claire. Another reason not to wear these heavy, serviceable shoes were because they had open sides that gave no ankle support. I was beginning to have weak ankles, prone to tripping over my own feet. These were the very shoes I was wearing when I had sustained a hard tumble just this autumn, bruising my leg and wounding my own ego with the knowledge that I myself was getting older and not so sure-footed.

Straightening my back and pulling my shoulders down, I still felt awkward carrying the oblong basket, the wicker scratchy against my arms. Since I knew nothing about Claire's roommate, I hoped I was not imposing our Christian faith on a woman who might have long ago given up on God. Not only did I feel a bit intrusive in this room, but I was also cognizant that wearing my jewelry, a bold sterling silver cross, might somehow offend the woman with the open eyes. Then again, I probably was making unfounded suppositions and tried to dismiss that niggling thought. I would not let that meaningful piece of jewelry be an impediment on this mindful communion journey today.

The woman in the bed had been in this recumbent state for months, a prisoner of thin mattress, lumpy pillow and well worn linens. “A prisoner on a bed” was a phrase that haunted my memory. This was what I thought each time my own daughter was hospitalized, sometimes for months on end, staying in bed and trying to heal physical wounds while the world turned on its axis, day after day.

Was this woman on the bed with her eyes open exiled by self-imposement and why did she not speak? Why did no one ever seem to visit her? Was she loved? Did she have family? Did anyone pray for this woman in a manner that she herself would have desired? I feared the answer would be “no” to all my questions. These questions haunted me. I wondered if my own small communion task trumped that of the purpose of the life behind those opened eyes, now low on the ground, low because the bed had been depressed for reasons of safety.

My visit with Claire now completed, with the liturgy symbols of wine and bread taken, it led me to think about food and water and how this woman was physically sustained. The woman might be out of my sight, but she was still a real presence in my

Thinking of nutrition, I recalled my mother, ill with cancer, drinking Ensure, a product with calories and nutritive vitamins so good for a dying body. The hospice nurses were kind, giving dollar saving coupons for the product, as if saving one dollar here or there would actually make any difference to the family budget. Besides, all mother ate was ½ can of creamed soup at noon time, and perhaps the other half in the evening. It did not take more than a dollar a day to feed that shrinking little frame of a body still called “mother.”

There was much more to cost of care than just the commodity that money conveys when caring for an ill family member, for there was a true and almost tangible psychic toll that also had to be paid in terms of stress and grief. Grief has the price of sometimes changing personalities, and often, the price of changing priorities. At the end of mother's life, my psychic resources had been depleted.

Was Ensure the favored drink of the woman with open eyes? Was she ever served sherry in the later afternoons like I sometimes had given my mother? Surely at this place where she now resided, such a treat was never offered. Sometimes the young woman working on her nursing unit who generally wore a brightly colored shirt with a tabbed collar might bring her a popsicle. It always turned into such a mess. It was too cold to eat, too burning with cold to lick, and always served in a paper cup. When the banana popsicle melted just enough to take a sip, down the sticky juice dribbled onto the front of her gown. I felt so very sorry for this woman.

Once I told my husband of the woman's eyes, those orbs that blinked but did not follow motion, and how the woman did not speak. The husband reminded her that even if one might be in a coma, one could still hear and comprehend what might be going on around her. So maybe next time I will see her, I will not be as restrained about my spiritual visit with Claire. Perhaps I will just say “hello” softly to her the next time I walk by her bed. If the woman with open eyes was still there. She likely would be as she had been there for many months already.

Maybe her open eyes were reflecting over her past life, a happy time in which memories were recalled, good times were being relived. Perhaps the woman was taking a much deserved rest from the active process of dying. And maybe this resting time with her eyes being open was a period when she was thinking about her prior years, her successes and maybe a failure or two, making silent amends for previous sins of commission and for sins of omission. And may be she was playing the role of the main actor at the center of a dizzying, spinning world in which she was part of a dance full of life and movement. Hopefully, she was at peace as she lay inert, and just perhaps she wanted to be left alone for a time of intense concentration on her dream life.

I wanted to be honest about my true motives around the nature of my fascination with the woman. I think it was because I she saw a bit of my future self in this woman. After all, I had two prior deceased husbands that often came to mind, along with self recriminations and shades of sorrow. And likely it was my fault that one of my daughters was estranged from me. These were weighty concerns that caused me constant internal turmoil.  I realized I was feeling sorry for myself as well as for the woman with open eyes when I thought about my own future.  A lot of psychological projection was happening here.

 After my next visit to Claire and as I leave, I will lean over the bed with the woman with open eyes who will be lying on her side.  I will look into her eyes.  I will bless her and offer a prayer for her well being. And I will believe that if in the future it is you who might wonder about my being in a similar state, you will also offer a prayer.  I pray my life will be reviewed with some compassion, free of blame, full of forgiveness and love, and ready for a new journey of living with eyes open to expanding possibilities.  This is my prayer for her as well.

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