Harriett was just a little bag of bones lying on a bed in the back room of an adult foster home. Her caregivers had told me Harriett had been a Baptist, but the folks from her church had stopped visiting long ago. Harriett could no longer talk, and the disease process had atrophied her legs so they were folded up like a pretzel—but her big brown eyes were always open and seemed to dance.
Harriett’s nurse told me that Harriett liked it when people sang to her. Now, that’s way out of my comfort zone. I sing in the key of K9—I howl like a dog. I couldn’t find a tune with a road map. But discarding all my feelings of self-consciousness, I sang to Harriett. I tried to think of good Baptist songs and came up with “Jesus Loves Me This I Know.” Singing that song made me feel like a little kid again. Who cares if I can’t sing? I’m going to anyway! And Harriett’s eyes just danced.
My last visit with Harriett was very different. Her eyes were no longer dancing; they looked vacant. I must have sat there for at least twenty minutes just looking into her eyes—I mean really staring. I wanted to really see her, who she was. I prayed for her and reassured her that she was in a safe place, but mostly I just looked into those eyes. It was an intensely intimate visit, and it opened up wells of emotion deep inside me. I realized my own humanity on a new level. Yes, there are now 7 billion of us on this rock, individuals all, but Harriett taught me that in some unseen way we’re all connected—all part of one another.
Twelve hours later Harriett died.
In his book Soul Prints, Marc Gafni tells a story about going to see a mystical rabbi in Jerusalem. Gafni explains that it was difficult to get an appointment with this particular rabbi because he only would meet with folks for a few hours each day, and those meeting were generally in the middle of the night. So at 3 or 4 in the morning, Gafni met this little Russian man. Here’s how he relates the encounter.
During the entire time in which you are in his presence, he is fully focused on your face. For the forty-five minutes I sat with him, he was absolutely intent upon me. His eyes did not waver. Not only did he refrain from looking at his watch, but it was clearly apparent that the only thing he was thinking about were the words I was saying. For him in that moment, my utterances were the most important thing in the entire world. When I left, I didn’t take with me any great advice or a solution to the particular problem that I had brought to him. However, I did leave feeling fully received, and somehow that itself was the answer.[i]
Poet laureate Maya Angelou writes, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
In my own self-scripting memory of being with Harriett, I imagine I was the little Russian rabbi for Harriett, or an embodiment of Maya Angelou’s insight. But the truth is, sitting with Harriett taught me how wonderful it can be to forget about my own neurotic self for a little while and simply get absorbed in being with someone else. Listening to another. Seeing another. Not being the center of the universe for a few short moments can be so freeing.
[i] Marc Gafni, Soul Prints: Your Path to Fulfillment (New York: Fireside, 2001), 79.