I sat on a boring bench for modest lunch. The strong sunlight littered the pavement, but I was too lazy to move to an artsy arboretum today. The boring bench would do.
‘A gorgeous day, isn’t it? Surely the best place to sit and eat lunch is here!’ she exclaimed.
I had seen better, but I didn’t mouth the disagreement.
‘May I sit here with you?’ she asked, pointing to her brown lunch bag and chips. I moved my mustard sweater in invitation.
She looked at my blue medical scrubs and surveyed me slightly.
‘You work here?’
‘No, I intern,’ I said. ‘What do you do?’
‘I’m a caregiver.’
That explained her costume: nothing as uniform as medical scrubs in a hospital environment but something as girly as cheerful pink with white fluffy clouds printed over it: something a child would fancy. It was surely odd in a nice way.
A caregiver. I had seen plenty of those. Why, hadn’t I chanced one in the bus stop the other day? She had told me she had just filed for a position and was hopeful to get in.
‘Please, you will tell me no? If there is anyone be needing caregiver? Good care, I will give,’
I had consoled her that there must surely be at least one person who would require her help in the future and that it was a promising career.
Most caregivers I had seen had been older women with a certain motherly quality about them, greyed, fragile themselves and usually a little poorer than your average maid. They were often immigrants with tales to tell. I was almost always perplexed by them.
This one to me seemed typical with her wisps of grey hair, eyes drooping and slight freckles on her skin. But I liked her friendliness. We started chatting.
‘Who are you caring for?’
‘A cancer patient’
I froze. I learnt of her patient’s cancerous lymph nodes. It had metastasized to her lungs and doctors suspected cancer elsewhere too. She was a test patient for a new type of chemotherapy and plans to save her had backfired, devastating her chronically: instead of being killed, the cells had grievously and aggressively multiplied, invading her. She was utterly alone without much family to take care of her, and the irony was this: she was a professor of molecular biochemistry who didn’t need her medical condition described to her.
I have seen corridors of cancer patients: bald, weak and helpless. I have spent months looking at their fight, only an observer. But I can tell you this much. Cancer patients have a lot of problems. They make heart-breaking patients. Often, after chemotherapy, they can’t get up and even go to the bathroom. Sometimes, they give caregivers a headache. But this caregiver refused to complain. She had only deep admiration and a sense of selfless devotion to her patient, and nothing else. Just a pure sense of service-mindedness, and loyal sympathy.
‘My patient is remarkable. She has an arm that hurts so much every time she moves and she used to keep telling me that it felt like her limb was literally 150 pounds to her. She was in tremendous pain. And you know, I could see from her perspective. I was not surprised when she opted to get the arm amputated. People thought she was metal, crazy, even to get rid of a perfectly functioning arm…but you know, I can feel for her. You can’t simply anesthetize pain like that. That thing that feels like 150 pounds has to go…after all the pain it caused…I can imagine. And you know…she is a woman of such incredible dignity. She is in such pain, but she never shows it. You can see it clearly in her eyes though, but she never shows it. She is one of those people who does not believe in causing a fuss and inviting people to gape at her. She bears the burden of her pain with such dignity…I have to respect that.’
I listened with awe.
‘One day, she called me over and asked me to move her arm an inch. Every time I moved her arm, the pain was like fire to her. I stood there and said I didn’t want to be her caregiver anymore.’
‘Why, Annie, Why?’ the old professor burst into tears, ‘Why? Even you are leaving me? You are the only thing closest to me like this, please don’t leave me! You can’t handle me can you? Do I ask you to do too much?’
‘It’s not that, god bless your soul, ma’am!’ I said, ‘Don’t mistake me. It is this pain that I can do nothing to help you that is affecting me.’
It was a touching moment.
‘Any patient—be it somebody with cancer or Alzheimer’s, is a person. And he should be looked upon like a person. He is a person, and you should once at least try to put yourself in his shoes. The simple act of sympathy, you know, is not so difficult at all. You don’t need to see someone in trauma and on his death-bed to be able to feel for him or see from his eyes.’ she said, and chewed her lunch, as I chewed on her words.
‘True,’ I nodded.
‘Take for instance, just today…a woman was anxiously waiting outside the OR for her husband, he was a neuro case and they had cut open his brain. She couldn’t take it, so she went outside the premises and started smoking a cigarette to calm her nerves, and this insensitive lady walks by and says, ‘whatcya doin here standin smokin like that? Don’t.’
That woman almost had tears in her eyes and said, ‘If you knew what I was going through, hell, you’d smoke a thousand cigarettes, so butt off.’
“ Now, if someone is legally smoking outside and if someone tells you that, you’d better take a second and try and deduce why she is thinking like that, maybe a lot is going on in her life, right? But this lady just can’t see from her perspective and tries to pick on the poor ol’ woman who is so stressed and is devastated to see her husband like that…and she chooses this moment, this moment when she is trying to calm down to pick a fight. This world is full of morons like that. So I went up to the distraught woman and said, I did—hey, go on and have another cigarette by all means, if it calms your nerves. Nothin’ bad’s gonna happen, and don’t pay attention to people like that. I can understand what you are going through. You see—people need support like that.”
It often takes just simple words to convey big things: Nothing is going to happen. I can understand what you are going through. Clearly, Annie knew that in her simple acts of kindness.
I was utterly blown and I didn’t know what to say. I just stared at this wonderful person. This world needed people like her.
It was time to go.
‘I’m Annie by the way,’ she shook my hand, ‘And now I’m going to go have a cigarette some place nice, if you don’t mind. My own nerves sometimes need calming too, you know. To work like this can be interesting, and I work long hours.’
And here she is, helping everybody out, and nobody is here to ask her if her nerves are calm too, I thought. She was an unapplauded kind of hero in this space. But of course, she didn’t mind that. She was satisfied where she was, and that made her heart beautiful.
How many Annies have you seen in your life?