Just before our fortieth wedding anniversary in 2008, I drive my husband Vic to Strong Hospital where he’s being treated for lymphoma. The long drive is familiar after two years. Spring-green hillsides shout May vitality and hope, while Vic chokes and gasps in the passenger seat next to me. He’s exhausted from cancer treatment and months of coughing. He lives on prednisone by day and a few hours of fitful Ambien-induced sleep at night.
My heart breaks for him and for myself. I’m exhausted, too, and I know my husband is dying.
After Vic is admitted to the hospital, his oncologist arranges to have another doctor drain the fluid surrounding Vic’s lungs. I can’t imagine another invasive procedure, but Vic’s will to live remains unbroken. Although he hasn’t eaten or slept for days, he longs to take a deep breath.
That evening, an impatient white-coated pulmonologist and his students surround Vic’s bed.
“You sit on the side of the bed and lean forward on that tray table so we can work on your back,” the pulmonologist orders Vic.
“You stand in front of him. Push your body against the table and let him lean into you from the opposite side so nothing moves,” he orders me. Unlike most of the doctors we’ve met, he offers no gentle smiles of encouragement, no reassurance. I do what he says.
Someone added this procedure to the end of this man’s long day. He doesn’t hide his unhappiness about it. His students are tense and cautious as they follow his brusque directions, sterilize Vic’s back, and insert a needle into the fluid-filled space around Vic’s lungs.
Unable to speed the process, the doctor paces around Vic’s bed, his resentment simmering under the surface. Vic looks up at me with exhausted sad eyes. I want to vaporize this doctor.
“Will you read the poem about kindness?” Vic asks in a whisper.
“Now?” I ask.
“Yes, now. Please.”
I think he’s lost his mind but ask one of the students to hold Vic steady for a moment. I get Vic’s recently published book Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics from his briefcase and resume my position across the tray table. Despite the strange sucking sounds, a smell of fetid salt water, a horrifying amount of cloudy fluid dripping into plastic containers, and my embarrassment, I read the poem by Naomi Shihab Nye that ends Vic’s book:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.[i]
My voice chokes with tears. The pulmonologist’s jaw loosens and his hard voice softens. The students sigh and reach out toward Vic’s back with tenderness. My belly relaxes and Vic takes a deep breath. Twilight dissolves the hard stainless edges of the equipment and a humming grace descends over the room.
[i] Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness,” Words under the Words (Portland, Oregon: Eight Mountain Press, 1995), 42-43. (With permission from author)
I waited for the right time to share this story of kindness from my book Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief (Larson Publications). This is the time. The article was first published in The Healing Muse, May 8, 2014.
Have you seen a gentle response to anger and fear change a difficult experience into a sacred one? I’d love to hear about it. To hear about the experience that inspired the poem “Kindness” and to hear the poet read the poem, see “Kindness Over Fear: Naomi Shihab Nye Tells the Remarkable Real-Life Story That Inspired Her Beloved Poem ‘Kindness’.” For an article about moments of joy and hope in life with Vic, see Bookends of a Marriage.