Let It Be Kind To You
“Whatever bad things have happened to you in your life, whatever hard things you’ve gone through, you have to do three things: You have to accept it. You have to be kind to it. ... And listen to me. You have to let it be kind to you."
Illustration (detail) by Gracìa Lam
“Y’always think that when you get old, you’re supposed to become wise. But here I am, fixin’ to die, and I never did.” Gloria’s milky blue eyes widened and she raised her eyebrows. She laughed, just a little bit.
“I’d have thought, with all I been through, that if anyone could figure it all out before it was too late, it was me.” She laughed again, a sort of rolling chuckle that interrupted her slow, drawling cadence. She laughed all the time.
“You know…” She leaned toward me and sunlight lit up the white baby fuzz on top of her head. “I always wished I could meet a writer, and tell him my stories, so other people could hear them and not make the same mistakes I made. I’d just give him my stories. I’d say, ‘Here, take them and tell them.’ And you know what crazy stories I’ve got. But I never did. I never did meet a writer.”
I was uncertain what to say. I had once written a book, more than ten years before, but I wasn’t here as a writer now. Gloria was a hospice patient and I was her chaplain. I couldn’t remember if I’d ever told her about my past, but I didn’t think I had.
“I used to pray for it all the time, that I might meet someone,” she continued. “But I guess that prayer won’t ever be answered.”
We fell silent, and I hoped Gloria would change the subject.
She lifted her hands from the armrests and let them fall as she sighed heavily. “I never even leave this house. I’m stuck here. How could I meet a real writer now?”
She looked at me, shook her head, and smiled. “I prayed and prayed and prayed. Some prayers just don’t get answered, I suppose.” She laughed, but this time it sounded sad.
It was getting ridiculous. I hesitated for one more silent minute, then said, “Gloria, did I ever tell you I was once a writer?”
“A real writer?” Her sparse eyebrows flew up again.
“Yes, but it was a long time ago.”
“Like someone who wrote a book?”
“Yes. Published and everything.”
She threw up her hands and looked at the ceiling. “All this time I’ve been waiting for a man, Jesus!” she yelled. She bounced slightly in her recliner, then turned and looked at me. “I thought you’d be a man, Kerry! But this is it!” She rocked back and forth and spread her arms wide. “I can feel it! This is the answer. The Holy Spirit sent you to me, and I’ve already told you all my stories. Now you’ve just got to go write them down. Maybe they could help someone. Maybe someone else can get wise from them. Promise me you’ll tell my stories.”
It was Gloria and the promise I made to her that led to my book On Living (published this month). I had been holding on to patients’ stories for many years by then, the stories that patients had poured out and puzzled over, the stories they turned over in their minds like the rosary beads and worn Bibles they turned over in their hands. I hoarded them, locked them away in my heart.
Often, but not always, my patients found some measure of peace as we talked. Often, but not always, their faith in something good and greater than themselves was affirmed. Often, but not always, they found strength they didn’t know they had to make amends with the people in their lives, and courage to move forward without fear toward their deaths. Always, they taught me something.
We all have some experiences that we hold up as the stories that define our lives. Patients told me those stories, sometimes once or twice, and sometimes dozens of times over. Usually the way they told them changed with each telling. Not the basics of the story, but what they emphasized, the details, the connections they made between the details, and eventually, the connections they made between the various stories, even if the events they recounted happened decades apart. The meaning they found in their stories expanded and shifted.
Almost always, their stories were about shame or grief or trauma: My child died in my arms when he was four. My wife left me for another man while I was a soldier far away. I killed someone. My father raped me. I drank my life away. My husband beat my children and I did nothing to stop it because I was afraid. I was not loved, and I don’t know why. The stories confused them.
How could these things possibly have happened, and what did it all mean?
I don’t know if listening to other people’s life stories as they die can make you wise, but I do know that it can heal your soul. I know this because those stories healed mine.
Just as was true for every one of my patients, something had happened to me, too. What I thought of as the story that had shaped my life up to that point was one I was ashamed of. I thought I was broken and cracked and could not be put back together again, that I was destroyed at the very deepest part of me, and that this was something that could never be made better. When I started working in hospice, I didn’t yet understand that everyone—everyone—is broken and cracked.
Just a few months after starting to work in hospice, I walked into the dark, run-down room of a nursing home patient whose chart said she had both colon cancer and advanced dementia. Instead of the weak, curled-up patient I expected, I found a beautiful woman with tightly set white curls on her head, sitting ramrod straight on her bed. She was like an emaciated, blue-tinged china doll on the expanse of white institutional sheets.
Instead of greeting me with the deep silence of end--stage dementia, she spoke in a broad New England accent about what it was like to lose pieces of your body, pieces you had never appreciated until they were gone. It can happen, even with end-stage dementia, that a patient will have moments, or even a day, of perfect clarity. As she talked about her many years of treatment for cancer, a pink flush crept up the papery skin of her neck and across her face. First her hands and then her whole body quivered. Her voice slowly got louder as her body got tenser. “I have no asshole!” she finally exploded. Her tiny white fists hit the bed in unison. Even using all her strength, she barely dented the sheets. “I can’t shit!”
She looked away and stared at the radiator intently. When she spoke again, her voice was a gravelly whisper. “Every person who came in that hospital room, they all stared down at me. They didn’t actually see me. They didn’t want to see me. They talked to me in baby talk like I’m an idiot. They looked at me and thought, I’m happy I’m not like her. Even if they were nice, I knew they thanked God that they weren’t me. I knew they only saw a crazy, pathetic old woman who doesn’t even have an asshole.”
We sat in silence for a few seconds that felt like minutes. When she looked at me again, I said, “What you needed was compassion, but what you got was pity.”
“Yes.” She sucked in air. “Yes, that’s right. That’s exactly right.” She looked at me with surprise. She furrowed her eyebrows and said in a different voice, an almost-accusing voice, “You’re very young.”
“I’m older than I look.”
“No. You’re young,” she said flatly. “How do you know these things?”
“I know what pity feels like.”
She sat up even straighter and pinned me with her eyes. “Why? What’s your story? What happened to you?” I could feel heat prickle through my body. “I’d rather not say, because I’m here to talk about your life. My role as the hospice chaplain is to listen to you, to help you draw on your spiritual strengths to get through this time.” I tried to sound professional.
“No, no. Not at all.” Suddenly I wanted to stand up and run. I could hear the ocean in my ears and feel my heart in my chest. I held on to the edge of the bed. “It’s just that I know myself, and I know that if I start to talk about me, that’s all I’ll talk about, and that’s not right, because I’m here to visit you and listen to you and not me. It’s just not something I should talk about.”
I was lying, of course. I was ashamed, and she knew it. But she was also kind enough not to call me on it.
Her brown eyes, bulging slightly from her bony eye sockets and sunken cheeks, stared into me. Then she reached for my hands and cleared her throat.
“Whatever bad things have happened to you in your life, whatever hard things you’ve gone through, you have to do three things: You have to accept it. You have to be kind to it,” she said slowly, squeezing my fingers together. “And listen to me. You have to let it be kind to you.”
I didn’t understand what she meant. I didn’t know how to let my hard thing be kind to me.
I had an emergency C-section with my first baby. During the surgery, the epidural anesthesia failed. I could feel everything, but the dangerous part was that I was moving while I was still cut open. The emergency anesthesia I was given is called ketamine, a drug usually used only on horses, on battlefields, and at raves. It doesn’t work the way a typical anesthetic does, by shutting off the body’s ability to feel pain. Instead, it works as a “dissociative anesthesia”—that is, by severing the mind–body connection so that you do not recognize pain as such. In other words, it triggers a psychotic state.
In my unlucky and unusual case, the state wasn’t temporary. That drug-induced psychotic disorder lasted seven months. As a new mother I was suddenly plunged into a world of hallucinations, delusions, dissociation, suicidal ideation, and catatonia. I have almost no memories of my son’s first half year of life, and I slept through the next 18 months on a cocktail of powerful psychiatric medications. I got better, with the help of lots of therapy, drugs, and time. But I lost years of my life to that psychosis.
And I was still deeply ashamed that I had lost my mind.
I went back to see that dementia patient many times, always hoping, selfishly, to have another conversation. I wanted to learn what she’d meant, how she let the bad things that had happened be kind to her. But she never spoke a single word again. She couldn’t even make or maintain eye contact. She lay in bed or in one of the huge padded vinyl recliners on wheels that nursing homes use for patients who have no control over their bodies. The dementia swallowed her back up. Only a curled-up and constricted body and a glazed silence remained.
I would sit with her and sing to her, hold her hands if they didn’t look painfully clenched. I don’t know if it gave her any comfort at all. A few months later she died, alone in her dark room in the middle of the night.
She likely had no memory of ever meeting me, but I’ve been holding on to and thinking about what she said ever since. About the wisdom to be found in stories like hers, and the kindness to be found even in our hardest things, even now, in the midst of living.
When you talk to hundreds of people who are dying and looking back over their lives, you come to realize something startling: Every single person out there has a crazy story. Every single person has some bizarre, life-shattering, pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you story in their past, or will experience one in their future. Every shopper in the grocery store, every telemarketer on the phone, every mother at school pickup, every banker striding down the sidewalk. Money, faith, popularity, beauty, power—nothing prevents it.
So many times I’ve sat in the silence, the air heavy and tense, as a patient searches my face. When you do it often enough, you come to recognize when the moment arrives. There’s a feeling of electricity in the air, and the patient tests the charge. This is when I wait, knowing that if I just hold the line, if I wait in silence, no matter how hard that is, somehow the patient will find the courage. He will say the unspeakable thing. He will admit, not just to himself but to another human being, the thing he thought he could never say, the hard thing he thought would destroy him just by admitting its existence in his life.
But the fact remains that before a chaplain gets to that place with a patient—the place where the patient can stare into a deep hole of meaninglessness, or even leap right into it and wrestle down in the lonely existential muck until a ladder of sorts begins to appear—and somehow, somehow, in ways I still can’t fully explain, a ladder always does appear—before all of that, the chaplain has to create a sacred space, and to do that, she has to offer her loving presence first.
So before the patient can bear to dredge them up, he has to know that he is safe to do so. He needs to know he doesn’t have to do it alone. And if the chaplain wants to be helpful to the patient as he contemplates taking the leap, she’d better not flinch.
I try not to flinch, I try not to be overwhelmed, I try not to run away. But I have.
For a long time, I thought my own life experiences marked me as strange and cursed. But after hearing so many stories, I came to realize that I was like everyone else, and that while my experiences might be unique to me, the pain was quite ordinary, and I was not alone in it. That was more healing than anything else. I don’t know if these stories will make you wise. But maybe, in seeing that other people have done it, you’ll find your own way to let your life be kind to you.
Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School who lives in Columbia, South Carolina. This article is adapted from the preface to a remarkable collection of stories called On Living, published by Riverhead Books.