I met a man at 8:27am on Friday — let’s call him Rick — at a hospital where I’d dropped off my sister-in-law for an appointment. I was in the lobby waiting for her and considering the two-story glass and steel flower sculpture suspended from the dome in the ceiling — and, because there’s nothing like an anxiety/depressive disorder to steal joy, wondering how wise such a spectacular, delicate piece will seem after Cascadia, the Grand Earthquake tasked with killing us all, shakes it from its mooring — when Rick appeared on a cell phone call with his adult daughter.
I like to think of myself as someone who pays attention, but I don’t know if I would’ve noticed Rick under normal circumstances. Perhaps I saw him because I was already contemplating disaster and full of heightened awareness. But it was more likely his gasps on each intake of breath and slight moans on each release that tipped me off. The lobby was fairly full, and people were in and out, generally minding their own business like we’re trained from birth to do. But Rick was in clear distress as he explained to his daughter that he wasn’t going to be able to wait until his 11:15am appointment with his doctor.
Discharged from the ER for the same pain two days prior, nothing had improved. He’d somehow managed to drop his wife off for her appointment at the hospital, but he was going to have to head over to the VA clinic because part of American healthcare and insurance coverage means the VA won’t pay for emergency care again unless they see him first and validate his need. He paced while he talked, unable to sit still, and he alternately leaned on walls and pillars with shaky hands and quietly moaned with each movement. By the time he concluded the call, the plan was clear — he was going to have to drive himself to the clinic because he couldn’t afford to call 911 for ambulance transport or ER care without VA assistance.
I watched him the whole time, unabashedly. He didn’t notice. His attention was limited to what was important — the call, breathing, and trying to make his way to the elevator a few steps at a time, stopping to put his hands on his knees to rest and try to remain upright. I grabbed my purse, and, along with another woman in a red coat, accosted Rick at the elevator doors.
“Do you need help?” she asked him as we made eye contact. She was Paying Attention, too, and recognized a Fellow Human in Need. And I followed up, “Are you headed to the VA clinic? Is it close?” I asked because I was waiting for my sister-in-law to finish her appointment, and I needed to let her know how long I’d be gone. There was simply No Way on Planet Earth I was letting this guy try to get to the VA on his own, and I prepared myself to convince him because older men — or, you know, men — sometimes don’t like it when a woman tells him what to do. It makes us hesitant. Nervous. Afraid of being treated harshly or berated or shamed for being
bossy leadershippy and failing to protect men’s pride.
“It’s close,” he said, and it was — only a couple miles.
“Great,” I said. “I’ll grab my car and meet you out front. I’ll drive you over. You can’t drive right now.”
Red Coat Lady backed me up. “I’ll help you down to the lobby. We’ll get you a wheelchair and wait.”
He didn’t argue. Thank God; that would’ve just wasted time. Instead, he just said, “OK,” and then, “Are you nurses?” clearly wondering why we would butt in with such authority and command.
“Just bossy,” I said with a wink, and she simultaneously replied, “I’m a mommy and a grandma.” We nodded and smiled at each other, totally simpatico, because we’d said the same thing, and we both knew it. Once mommies and grandmas and humans get their groove on — once we realize the deepest truths of all, which are that we all belong to each other and that the way Love spreads is human to human contact — we understand caring for one another is our literal job. The only one on Earth worth doing. Our calling. Our drive. Our reason for sticking with life and seeing it through.
There was a time in my life I would’ve watched and not imposed myself on Rick or the situation. There was a time in my life I would’ve prioritized my assumption of his pride over his clear need for help. There was a time I wouldn’t have wanted to offend him or to appear “leadershippy” or foolish or to have my offer rejected. There was a time I bought into the notion of individualism and self-sufficiency.
Now, not so much.
Now, I try to remind myself to Pay Attention.
Now, I understand it’s not enough if I thrive while you’re in pain.
And so I butt in. And I believe in it so much, I want you to butt in, too.
You have to cultivate both the ideology and the skills for butting into others’ lives. You have to believe to your bones that it IS your job to take care of your community. That human suffering IS our business. That we all NEED each other. And — here’s the worst part for those of us who are tightly wound or in love with our own sense of self-sufficiency — you ALSO have to cultivate a willingness to be the one who receives help. I will tell you in advance, I HATE that part. I’d much (to infinity) rather play the role I played on Friday of helper rather than helpee. It casts me in the light in which I prefer to see myself — magnanimous, kind, strong, helpful.
But I will tell you, Rick had the much harder role.
He had to be both in excruciating pain AND navigate help from strangers, and you know what? He did both graciously. He recognized immediately that driving, both from a personal safety and community safety perspective, were unwise and that compromising safety wasn’t a worthy trade-off for self-sufficiency in that moment. We discussed none of this. I told him what was going to happen next, and he nodded. We executed the plan together. We were a seemless machine, both prioritizing that which needed to be prioritized — getting him medical assistance as soon as possible — and abandoning every other, silly, cultural expectation.
Red Hat Lady met me with Rick as I pulled my car in front of the hospital. We situated him in the front seat and closed the door. She hugged me and whispered thanks in my ear, and I squeezed her a little extra and said thanks back. We weren’t thanking each other for being Good Samaritans or otherwise congratulating ourselves. We were thanking each other for fostering community above comfort; for letting each other see, tangibly, that there are legions of strangers on the same mission. We were thanking each other for the reminder in this bizarre modern context that there are other folks in the vanguard of the Kindness Army. We were thanking each other for letting a sister know we’re not alone.
I drove Rick to the VA clinic, and I rubbed his arm as he moaned. I muttered the kind of platitudes and assurances one does in such situations. We’re almost there. We’ll be there soon. We’ll get you help. I won’t leave you alone. Which are the same assurances we all need all the time, anyway.
I pulled up in front of the building and parked with my emergency lights blinking as I hopped out of the car to usher Rick inside, his arm tucked in mine. He told me he’s retired now, but once upon a time, he used to repair all the copiers inside. He told me he has two daughters named Jessica and Beth, and I told him I’m Beth and I’m honored to stand in for his daughters — one of whom was on the way — for a tiny bit.
Rick checked in, and I hovered until he promised me they care for him well there and until the receptionist assured me the nurse was on her way to assess him and get him to emergency, and then I bid him farewell, knowing it was time for another piece of the community to do their part, and I left, back for the other lobby.
The entire thing took 20 minutes. No sacrifice at all. No inconvenience. My sister-in-law was still with her doctor. And the glass flowers were still suspended from the ceiling. Nothing had changed. Just three strangers coming together to be the community we ought to be all the time.
Sending love, sweet friends, and hoping you’ll join me in butting in,
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