There are moments in our lives that confirm who we are.
I like to think I’m compassionate and caring. But my brand of compassion and care has limits. I’m reminded of my limitations when I’m around people who don’t have any. Like my friend Sandy.
We know each other from book club and we were both volunteers one week at a community meal—a free dinner for anyone in the community who needs it for any reason.
As much as I enjoyed volunteering at community meals—they always went a long way toward putting my own life in perspective—I found the cleaning up part of the experience a bit icky. Chatting, delivering food: wonderful. Collecting plates and cups: not so much.
As hard as I tried to avoid cold bits of mashed potato and gravy on the side of the plate, invariably one of my fingers would land in it. There is some quality in mashed potatoes that once cold, they seem extra cold and the texture becomes paste. Gravy coagulates. Enough said.
Cold gravy and mashed potatoes cling to warm fingers like flood victims to rescuers when they’re plucked off a roof.
So as I walked to the dirty-dish cart, half-eaten gravy and mashed potatoes seeping into my pores, I hustled to grab a clean napkin, emanating a silent scream until the offending particles were removed.
(To be clear, I don’t collect the dirty plates of family members for the same reason.
It takes everything I have to keep it together and not perform my shake-it-off dance, which resembles “the worm” except in a vertical position. Given my aversion to half-eaten dinners touching any part of my body, it’s not surprising that I’m not always the most helpful person in the room during a crisis, big or small.)
At that night’s meal a couple who were regulars came even though the husband was too ill to eat. He came anyway because he didn’t want his wife to miss out. It must have been torture for him to sit there while his stomach sailed the Seven Seas with all that food around and no refuge from hot smells coming from the kitchen.
He made it to the end of the meal before his nausea took over and sent him into convulsions of vomit at the table.
The minute I heard the sounds of retching I was running the other way as fast as Usain Bolt after hearing a starter pistol. Stay back and don’t look. That was my strategy because someone throwing up is the kind of scenario where I end up needing more attention than the sick person. Vomit makes me vomit and blood makes me queasy, a little fainty, and a little vomity.
So as I stood nervously shifting from one foot to the other along the back wall like a Grade 7 at a dance, Sandy got a bowl. She sat next to him and rubbed his back in a moment of gentleness, kindness and humanity.
When I first saw her I thought, “What is she doing!? Is she crazy? Norwalk virus! Get out of there!”
But as I watched Sandy talk to him between bouts of retching and treat him with dignity and respect, I saw what is possible.
It is a moment that has come to define her for me. Sandy is plenty of other things too—funny, gracious, and generous—but that image of her rubbing a sick man’s back is what I see when I look at her.
When I brought it up with Sandy she remembered the incident but hadn’t thought of it since. I think of it often.
I will never be like Sandy. I will never be the person who brings a bowl and chats casually in the midst of violent illness.
But I hope to be defined by the moments I ran to and not away from.