Last week an old friend called, a woman I’ll call “Sylvie” who I met decades ago in recovery.
We’d see each other in meetings at 3rd and Oxford in Koreatown, or at 6th and Bronson on the edge of Hancock Park.
Sylvie has a deep spirituality and a grounded belief in God. She’s also not able to work much and every so often will have a mental break and have to be treated at a hospital or psych ward.
As of a year or so ago, she’s been in a nursing home out of state. The first time she called me from there, I asked, “Do you have a roommate?” — a roommate in my mind being synonymous with extreme torture.
“I have three,” she chuckled.
Since then, she’s called every few weeks and the conversation usually seems one-sided, with me asking tons of questions about her, and she asking virtually none about me. So be it. The woman’s in a nursing home, for heaven’s sake. She has health problems and no money. And she’s a dear, longtime friend.
Still, when she called last week, my first thought was: If one more person wants or needs or asks something from me, I’m going to scream.
The next day I dialed her back, hoping she wouldn’t pick up. But she did.
I drew a deep breath, prayed, asked God to help me be kind, and said, “Hey Sylvie!”
We chatted about this and that, and somehow this time I didn’t have to ask a ton of questions. Instead, she proceeded to share what she did each day to establish and maintain her emotional equilibrium.
“They have a routine set up,” she reported. “That’s helpful. Every day, physical therapy. Exercise.”
“One day at a time really helps, I find. Just keep it in the day. God always gives me enough strength to get through the day.”
“I read my morning reflection and that helps ground me. I make an outreach call each day. I have a prayer partner I can call any time. We say affirmations together.”
What kind of affirmations? I wanted to know.
“God is with me. I’m safe. I’m safe. I’m safe.”
“They take my vital signs and my blood pressure every day, too,” she continued. “This morning it spiked.” She mentioned a number that seemed dangerously higher than the number from the day before. “But I don’t let myself get upset anymore. They’re on top of things. I have to believe. God is in charge.”
I brought up the Gospel reading where the waves were threatening to overwhelm the boat the disciples were in, and Jesus’s response was to curl up and take a nap.
She laughed. “Yeah, that’s good. I like that. He shows us how to be. I figure if my time is up, there’s nothing I can do to stop it. And if it’s not up yet, there’s nothing I can do to stop that, either.”
She never took over the conversation. She didn’t preach, lecture, give advice, or pontificate. Yet her voice, her tone, and her words had an extraordinarily calming effect.
And here I’d been poised to bestow my “help” upon her!
“It’s fine, I’m grateful. It’s not the way I would have chosen, but every day I get to practice my spirituality. It’s noisy, that’s the thing that bothers me the most. They have a little coffee hour at 10, so I can go down to the lobby and get a cup and bring it back to my room.”
“I sit with God. Maybe I call my friend. So you see, even in here, in the nursing home, my life is rich and full.”
“Isn’t it amazing, Sylvie? After all these years, we’re still talking. Thank you so much. You saved my life today.”
“Thank you. God is good.”
“Love to you, Sylvie.”
“I love you, too. Bye for now.”
That’s always how Sylvie signs off: “Bye for now.” Very resurrectional. Bye for now but we’ll meet again, sometime, somewhere.
Afterward, I thought about the strange fact that the deeper a person’s poverty of spirit, the more substance they have. The more in a sense they have to give. It’s always wonderful when anyone shares his or her daily life. To be seen and heard, to be called upon — even just for a “check-in” is always a consolation.
But when the person on the other end is in a position of even more worldly precariousness than you are, perhaps in more straitened living conditions, frailer physically, maybe closer to death — and that person simply by their essence shores you up — the consolation is that much deeper.
Is this not what Jesus means by the Way, the Truth and the Life? Is this not “The last shall be first, and the first last” in action?
“Bye for now.” I’ve been thinking all week, this was in essence what Jesus said to his disciples — after washing their feet at the Last Supper.