I held her right hand with both of mine carefully positioning her fingers so I could keep removing the lavender nail polish that was beginning to wear off the ends of carefully tended fingernails. All around the two of us people were coming and going. Talking but not listening. But not Ms. Liz and I. We could talk without talking, which is a good thing, considering her stroke ten days ago had impaired her speech something awful. She could talk, mind you, but I felt like her translator when the nursing staff started asking questions. Not that I minded, I just kind of felt like folks should slow down a bit and listen. Ms. Liz always had things to say and I had the feeling the stroke hadn’t changed that much, just the way it was going to happen. She still couldn’t say my name but that was fine with me too. She would try and eventually settle on calling me baby. I would take that over my given name any day.
I discover if you want to confuse people really good, just be a middle aged white lady hanging out with an older black lady for no obvious reason. Folks can’t figure that one out at first glance, and bless their hearts they try. You should see their faces as they fight back the urge not to ask who you are and why you’re there. Eventually, they just can’t help themselves. Curiosity gets the better of them. I get a bit weary of trying to explain that I’m her pharmacist and she’s also my friend but really there’s a whole lot more to it than that. I’m relieved when one of her sons interrupts me after the fifth explanation and tells the room his momma refers to me as her daughter. That fits just fine on me.
The social worker stops by and starts doing an assessment to see if Ms. Liz is depressed. All of the questions are arranged as simple yes and no answers so that patients who are struggling with physical limitations can answer easily. I keep my head tucked low to my chest, eyes on her hand, not wanting to embarrass her with my presence. I try with all my might to make myself invisible and unseen as she peels off the layers of Ms. Liz’s emotional state. I try not to hear but that’s just impossible given the smallness of the room and the closeness of my task. I work the emery board around the next fingernail gently shaping it, trying my best not to snag the delicate cuticle skin. Her hands are beautiful with long, elegant fingers that I know have rocked baby boys and nursed her own mother to the Father. Ms. Liz has prayed me through all three of my babies. She has loved me through thirteen years of life and has been a faithful woman of God. I have seen her ill, I have seen her exhausted, I have seen her broken, but I have never seen her like this. The stroke has left her with little function on her left side and swallowing has become an almost impossible task. And now I am witness to her most private moments. I find I am holding my breath as each answer is given.
And there as the social worker smiles and makes her way through the list I unexpectedly find myself with a front row seat to the Master at work.
“I’m sorry Ms. Liz, I have to continue asking these questions, but we are almost done. Would you say you feel alone now since the stroke?”
I stop breathing altogether and tilt my head up slightly to catch a glimpse of Ms. Liz’s lovely face. Of all the questions she has asked I think this one must be the one that I will lose my composure over. But not Ms. Liz. And for the first time in ten days I hear her speak an entire sentence as clear and bright as the pink polish she chose for her fingernails,
“God is always with me.”
And I am all kinds of undone.
Because right here in the middle of rehab sits a woman who cannot do one thing for herself when last week she could do everything and still she believes. Here sits one of God’s mightiest warriors physically grounded but spiritually not one bit moved from the foot of the cross.
I push back hot tears as I turn back to work her nails and I think,
“God give me a heart that loves you like that. Give me a heart that loses everything that makes me, me and still knows you are there. Tear out everything in my life that blinds me from your presence and your work until all I see is you.
And do it over and over and over.”
*To maintain patient confidentiality identifying information has been changed.*