The power of our presence to one another
Here we go again, I thought to myself as I entered the care facility to visit “Margaret,” the woman to whom I was assigned to visit as a volunteer with a local hospice organization. I drew a breath, said a quick prayer, knocked on the door, and walked a few steps into her room. I announced myself.
“Hi, Margaret, it’s me, Steve. I’ve come for another visit.”
“I don’t know you, do I?” she answered, a blank and glassy look in her eyes.
I started to explain that I had been coming to visit her every week for the past several months but then stopped. It didn’t matter. I knew she wouldn’t remember me. She never remembered me, which meant that she never remembered the stories she told me, which meant that every visit was like a first visit. I asked myself if this was worth my time. Was I doing any good, I wondered, if our conversation never went beyond the same story, told over and over, almost verbatim? We began again.
We sat a foot apart, she in her wheelchair and I in a straight-backed chair. We looked each other straight in the eyes and talked. Margaret made it easy for me, as she was quite the talker and always enthusiastic about having someone listen to her. Like many older adults (she was about to turn 98), Margaret had Alzheimer’s disease.
Margaret made it easy for me.
“Tell me about your childhood and your family,” I asked, following some small talk about who I was and why I was there.
With that simple question I began to hear again about her early life in North St. Louis, about walking through Fairgrounds Park to get to the then-new Beaumont High School (where my parents would attend a few years later), about her wanting to be a dancer but her mother refusing to allow her daughter to “take to the stage,” about her father calling her “tin ear” because she would be so engrossed in a book that she didn’t hear him calling her to dinner. She talked about her two marriages (one of 40-something years and the other, later in life, of about 10 years). She told me about her two sons, one who died in his 40s and one who lived in Florida now. Or maybe Texas. That part of the story sometimes changed.
Anyone who does this kind of work will tell you how much they learn from the people they visit, how they feel they sometimes benefit more from the exchange than the person they are visiting. I certainly felt that way. Despite the repetition, despite the forgetfulness and the changes in the stories, what I had come to learn during my short time with Margaret was this: I wasn’t visiting her and listening to her stories so we could build a relationship. We didn’t grow any closer each time we met; we just started over. So it wasn’t the relationship that mattered; it was my presence. It was just that moment, that hour or so of having someone willing to listen, to lay a hand on her hand, to laugh at her jokes. Who doesn’t want and need that?
It wasn’t the relationship that mattered; it was my presence.
I had to learn to let go of the notion that we tell each other stories in order to build a friendship, even if that’s how we generally make true friends. Often we share enough of ourselves over time with friends through our stories that we become intimate and integral parts of each other’s lives. But not so for Margaret and me. For us, there was just one hour, and then we would start again a week later.
But that period of being authentically present to one another is enough, I learned. It must be. It was all Margaret could muster by then. Her eyes sparkled when she told me her stories, enthralled once again at the notion of taking to the stage with her dancing instructor, of skimming across the surface of the frozen lake at Fairgrounds Park, of finding love once again late in life. Margaret didn’t know she was in a hospice program, although she knew she was 98 and her time was short. She didn’t remember me from week to week, but she remembered her own stories if someone showed up and asked her to tell them.
We all have a story to tell. There is an ache inside all of us, perhaps, that is just waiting to come out. The power of the word within us is a mysterious and sacred thing, for the stories of our lives are the histories of the movement of God in us over the course of time. To tell these stories of “God within us” is akin to proclaiming the Word of God. To listen to another is an act of love and a sign of community, a “holy listening” that tells the other that they are a child of God whose life and story are sacred, distinct, and worthy of our time and respect. To listen to another is to give purpose and meaning to their life.
We all have a story to tell.
Margaret taught me that the essence of love and of being Christ for another person is giving without thought of remuneration, of listening without regard for what we get out of the conversation. It is, as St. Ignatius writes so beautifully in his Prayer for Generosity, giving without counting the cost. If we can give nothing else to another person, we can give them our attention. We can turn off our cell phones, computers, and televisions and just sit a foot apart, look into each other’s eyes, and listen.
Meeting Margaret was a gift. I realized over time that there was something more than Margaret and me at work in the room. There was the gentle movement of an undemanding God who has promised: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Catholic Digest.