Her voice was loud, and she seemed nervous and uncomfortable whenever she came into the room. Throughout the week my friend’s previous nurses had been gracious, sensitive, and appeared at ease and very attuned to her and her wishes. This nurse was different. She was professional and forbearing, but I sensed her uneasiness and found myself wishing someone else had been assigned to care for my friend during her few remaining hours of life.
However, at the end of the shift, hours after my friend had passed away, I approached this nurse to thank her for everything and to ask what time the funeral people would be arriving to get her body. She became flustered and stammered, saying she had forgotten to call them. Assured by the next nurse coming on duty that she would take care of that and for her not to worry, the nurse just stood there in the empty hallway and stared at me with pain in her eyes. I waited. Her eyes began to water and she started to cry. “I just got divorced three months ago, and I have to leave work now and go from this conscious, peaceful, loving death to attend to my former mother-in-law, an old Italian woman who is dying of end-stage organ failure. I love her very much.” She trembled as she continued. “She won’t die like your friend, no way in hell. She has told me to not bring this hospice baloney to her bedside. She wants me to do everything I can to save her right up to the very end—even signed up as a full code—and if I don’t, she said she will rise up off the bed and choke me! I found being in your friend’s room today almost unbearable, knowing it won’t be like that for my mother-in-law.” We held hands for a long time as she sobbed. Words were not necessary; I got it.
Time and time again I am discovering that if we wait long enough—underneath the appearances—there is a story. There is almost always a story. So many times I have judged another’s behavior, reacting from my assumptions, sometimes even feeling a need to point out the error of their ways and then saying things I have later regretted. Yet, when I think about the times I have behaved badly—often when I am exhausted or worried or just being neurotic about something—how grateful I am when someone has the kindness and insight to just step back, be patient, and give me some slack. Meeting negativity with kindness, even if we don’t know the underlying story but just assume there probably is one, helps everyone.
During the flight on my way back home, I encountered a rude and irritable stewardess. My companion sitting next to me was outraged and said indignantly, “Damnation; this is uncalled for. How did they hire such a vile person? I’m going to report her.” Other passengers also looked ready to kill her.
“I’ll bet there’s a story there. Let’s mess with her by being really nice,” I finally replied. As we were sitting in bulkhead seats, it was easy to observe and interact a lot with her. Shamelessly eavesdropping, we heard her telling another flight attendant that a guy she had thought was the love of her life had just jilted her for another woman. Well, bam…there it is, I thought. Soon she was hanging out with us. Even joking a little. Then a smile appeared, and she headed down the aisle with her tray of water and peanuts.