So much of what we put out into the online universe is based on education. Facts. Stats. We have heard so many. And we often forget. I think one of the best things I can put out there for people to stumble upon are stories of my journey. I am not the only OT in the world. I am not the only person to have experience with death, dying, older adults, success in recovery, happiness or joy. But, for what it is worth I am submerged into a world that most people do try to avoid. I have learned to embrace it.
My first story comes from an experience I had last week with a client. I have seen him at his home for OT off and on for about two years. When I met him he was resistant to therapy and help. An ex-marine, retired doctor and specialist, a hunter, a father of five, a respect from his community that won’t quit, a sharp tongue… Yes, I was a little nervous if he would accept me as some 30 something, blond, OT that could help him. To say the least, he has. I have become incredibly attached to him and his busy-bee wife. Over our treatments together, he has learned how to manage with the right-sided weakness from a stroke, deal with pain in his eyes, integrate equipment to keep him safe like a commode and bedrail, accommodate for delays in his speech and deal with a right hand that moves like a mitten due to his stroke. We’ve trialed knee braces, dealt with falls, given education on swallowing strategies and worked like crazy to bring that strength and balance back. For stretches of times, we have been successful. Last week, we took a turn. His body is failing.
His affected leg from his stroke has a mind of its own. It won’t cooperate with him; it steps when it shouldn’t and it stays stuck like lead when he pleads for it to move. His knee buckles and luckily his arms are as strong as mine. He braces himself on the walker to avoid a fall and I keep a belt on him to hold him up in case he can’t do it. His wife and caregivers do the same.
Last week I showed up and instead of being in his straight back chair he was in his recliner. I knew he was not feeling well. I asked if he wanted to walk. For the first time in almost 2 years he said no. His caregiver told me it took 30 minutes to get down to his beloved “man cave” today–the basement with his big TV, his impressive displayed fish on the walls, his photos of his travels, his bear rug, his peace and quiet. She was afraid she would drop him. He told me he couldn’t control his body and for the first time I didn’t see the tough, ultra-strong man I knew. I saw an old, feeble man… scared of the changes he was going through.
We have a jovial relationship. We kid and talk about travel. We talk about politics and sports. Our points of view are very aligned. We aren’t super loving in action. We don’t hug. We take care of business and do therapy. We work hard to make him better and do it together. But, today I touched his leg in empathy, not for exercise. He looked at me. He started to cry.
I learned the power of silence in social work school. We women tend to over-talk. Fill the gaps and voids. We try to give comfort in words and busy-talk. Today I sat and said nothing. I never looked away but I stayed quiet. I never took my hand from his leg. He looked at me and said, “I want to die but I can’t.” When someone says something like that we want to gasp… even pull away. But I think we need to stay there. Deal with our own heart skipping a beat. Quiet our own grief that seeps in. I simply said, “I know you do.” His caregiver jumped in and said, “God’s not ready for you yet!!!” And while I too believe that I knew he didn’t care about God right then. Instead it probably made him want to curse her and God.
We sat. His grief and fear and emotions waved up and down. He’d settle. Then the wail of tears would come. He told me he was so successful but at this time in life what did it serve him? He was prisoner to his body. And he is right. To see this man of so much knowledge, so much skill, so much business sense, so much toughness, so much love for his children and wife, so many experiences all over the world hunting bears and catching sailfish, helping people in other countries go to school, providing for his family, boxing in the military, laughing with others, giving people faith in themselves… in this space… it broke my heart. But, I know I was put there to give him a rod of strength to grab. Like a relay but this one is life. All along his almost 90 years he’d maybe passed that relay baton a handful of times to someone else. Today it was me. So I took it. We cried together.
I can’t explain the whole transgression of the hour we spent together. All I can tell you is that it was the best place I could be. What I have learned from this is that we all are brought to a place of weakness—some of us more than others—and it is each of our duties to grab that baton for someone else when it happens. Run that race with the person. Don’t let it be a solo experience. When I am in his shoes, and we all will be (another lesson, right?) I hope someone grabs my baton. Validates how much it stinks to lose my body, keeps their hand on my leg, let’s me cry. I hope that they don’t step away. That they don’t let their own uncomfortable feelings take over. I hope they stay even if they don’t know what to do. Sometimes you can’t do anything. You can’t do anything but stay right where you are. Together.