Thursday, January 17, 2008

Small Slices of a Life

Last night the story of one of my client families began to play through my mind once again. And, I realized something. Every job I have ever held involved my being given small or large story slices of someone else's life. I've always worked in a service industry of one sort or another. My first few jobs were in restaurants, then I worked as a receptionist, my senior year in high school I moved to the retail sector. In my first few jobs, there was little to learn about the people I served, little time was spent with the customer, but I was privy to small slices of their lives even so. As I left high school and entered university, the three jobs I then held involved more and more information from those I served.

The last job I worked after I graduated university, before I became a stay-at-home mother, was in commission furniture sales. On a superficial level one would think I would learn very little of my customers. But it is either my personality style, the people I dealt with, or possibly because of the nature of their purchases (fairly big ticket items), I would be exposed to little snippets of their lives.

More than 20 years have passed since I worked in sales, but, there are a few customers I will always remember.

The family living with AIDS is one that stands out, a young couple in their early 20's with a new baby. It was the mid-80's and not a lot could be done yet to halt the progression of the disease, the young mother had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion, at the time I met them, they did not yet know if their baby was HIV positive or not. (I learned later he wasn't). There was a strong aura of sadness emanating from them, but also so much love.

Husband and wife, both knowing she was not long for this world, were attempting to furnish their home in a style that would leave some of her personality behind for their child to absorb after his mother was gone. Each item they chose was chosen for more than just the purpose it was designed for. Each item chosen held a future story in it, stories a dying young mother needed to create for her son, stories filled with love and hope for the future. I watched the three of them wander through the room displays, listened as she spoke of their future, her husband's and son's. She appeared so peaceful to me, she had accepted her fate, and was moving past it. I admired her for that. I think of father and son from time to time, wondering how their lives turned out, I remember reading the young mother's obituary a few years later, her son would be in his early 20's himself now.

Another story that should have taught me the value of open communication involved a father and teen-aged son who came into the store one week before Christmas. They wanted to purchase a new sofa as a surprise gift for their wife/mother. A sale I tried to discourage. As we wandered from sofa to sofa, I listened as neither father or son could agree on what Wife/Mom would like. More and more, I began to feel a sense of foreboding, putting myself in the place of Wife/Mother. I attempted to point out to father and son, that perhaps this woman in their lives needed to have her own say in something so long lasting. An item such as a sofa can make a statement about the people who live in the home. But the husband insisted his wife would be very happy with anything he picked out. He was very sure she would be elated on Christmas morning to find a new sofa sitting in her living room. I was quite reluctant to write up the order,and set up delivery to a brother's house. (They planned to wait until Wife/Mother fell asleep on Christmas Eve, and then replace the old sofa with the new.)

Of course it was only a few days after Christmas when I received the expected phone call from Wife/Mother, hoping she could exchange the sofa. She really detested the one they had picked out, yet she felt guilty that she was so unhappy with it. Upon the family's return to the store, I could see, hear, and feel their stress. The gift of the sofa had been a very big deal to the husband. The gift was a different kind of big deal to Wife/Mother. She was extremely grateful for the gift, but it was also something that she had to live with for many many years. Not an easy thing to do when you abhor the thing you have to look at every day.

As they toured the sofas on display, the bickering began. It started with little snide remarks. Then stories of past disagreements began to emerge, stories that involved comments that began with, "You always....", or " You never....". I do not remember how things were eventually smoothed over, no matter how much I tried to distance myself, I was continually being brought into the argument, each wanting me to take their side. Eventually a compromise was reached, and the new sofa was delivered to their home. I have always wondered if there was a continual feeling of discord over the sofa. Maybe not though, maybe they decided to discharge the negativity surrounding the gift, and initiate* it into their home, thus it could then be an object that exhibited good vibes for them. (Maybe, I should have suggested such an initiation ~grin~)
As I thought of these two families, and several of the others I remember, I realized, I have always dealt with the emotions of others, always been in some sort of position in which I learned some of the more intimate details of strangers lives, more detail at times than I needed to know.

Which brings me to the area of social services I worked in before my current one. As an educator on child abuse, I heard even more stories, sometimes horrendously appalling stories of abuse and neglect, from adults and children, mostly from the children though. Stories that in many cases left me feeling helpless because there was little I could do to aid or remedy their problems. I was often a catalyst for change though, many times that change created hostile feelings toward me when a secret was outed, one I was obligated to report, but hopefully the change became positive in the long run.

In the area of work I now follow I am even more involved in peoples lives. Sometimes more deeply than I would like, sometimes less. There are still many instances when I feel helpless, sometimes I know all I can do is be that listening ear, or be the objective outsider who can offer up various options they may wish to consider.

There are so many stories, stories of lives filled with stress, sadness, strife, poverty, sickness, fear, addictions, stories filled with so much need. Some very bizarre stories, some "that could be me someday" stories, stories I know will not have a happy ending. Most of the stories are filled with hope though, there is almost always hope.

One current story I can't seem to stop pondering every once a while involves a couple that became my clients back in October, Mr. and Mrs. W, each of them disabled and needing help with various aspects of their lives.

When I first met them their story seemed quite similar to many others I have heard. But as I spent more time with them, some significant differences became quite apparent.

I have only met with them three times, all in all spending approximately seven hours with them.

At beginning of first meetings with clients I always begin by asking basic demographic questions, such as birth dates, social security numbers, medical diagnoses, medications, and the like. It is only after they become easier in my presence, after I become more comfortable with them that I begin to receive more in depth information.

As the first meeting with Mr. and Mrs. W entered the third hour, I learned they had only been married three years. I became curious, I would have sworn they had been married for years, I asked how they had met.

It became one of those stories in which I had to suspend my disbelief. One of those stories in which no matter my own personal opinions regarding religion and God, I had to be open to the possibilities of their view of their reality.

Mrs. W did most of the talking, and as she began to speak of their meeting a certain timbre became very apparent in her voice. There was love, so much love, but also awe.

It seems a few months before they met she had finally reached that lowest point in the life of one who is mentally ill and an addict some reach. A point in which she knew if she did not make some serious life choices she would soon be dead. Her cure was religion, she became a born again Christian. She spent quite a bit of time with the pastor of her new church home, reviewing her life, learning new ways to live. She soon made the decision to move back to the city of her youth hoping to start anew in an environment that held some feelings of safety for her.

Mrs. W's story:

"At the last meeting with Pastor M, after we said a final prayer together, he told me that I would meet the love of my life soon. He even described him to me. He would be older, have brown eyes, and a long silver beard. He would be waiting for me."

"One day as I was leaving my new apartment building, someone held the door open for me, I didn't even look at the person, not at first. Then I heard this voice whisper in my ear, "He's the one, he's the one." I looked up, and there he was, Mr. W, this man with such warm brown eyes and a long silver beard. I just stood there, staring, just looking at him. Then I asked him to have coffee with me."

It seems Mr. W was waiting for her too, as only a month before, soon after he had also become a born again Christian, he prayed for a "good Christian woman" to enter his life, one he could make his wife, his life partner.

Mrs. W stated they immediately felt drawn to each other. That cup of coffee became several. They spent long, long hours talking over those cups of coffee. They spoke of their beliefs regarding all aspects of life, they spoke of their pasts, the mistakes and joys, they spoke of their hopes for the future. Exchanging information about their lives they would never have told another person on first meeting. Yet, she said, they felt an immediate bond.

They quickly became fast friends. Living in the same apartment building they were also able to spend quite a bit of time together. Eventually they both decided they wished to become more than friends. Mrs. W then spoke of their first "real" dinner date. Mr. W had invited her over to his apartment for dinner. She described how he had set the stage for a warm romantic evening, the many candles he had burning, the softly muted music playing in the background, the ambrosial taste of the meal he had prepared for her. An evening spent in the company of one who seemed to "get" her, with someone she seemed to "just get". Upon leaving his apartment that evening, they exchanged their first kiss, in her words --"It wasn't even a deep kiss, just a light touching of the lips"--"It was the first kiss I ever had that left me weak in the knees."-- Mrs. W's voice was filled with amazement as she described her walk down the hall, she said her gait was unsteady, she was bumping into the walls, feeling as if she was intoxicated. She doesn't remember the reaching her apartment door. But finally she was there, and was unable to put her key in the lock. Mr. W had watched her leave, became worried as he watched her weave and bump down the hall, he was there ready to help her as she dropped her keys in the attempt to unlock the door. They kissed one more time before she entered her apartment. She was "blissfully smitten". They were married not long after.

There is more to their story, things that add a slightly different dimension to their story than my average clients. Mr. W was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease a few months ago, but that doesn't explain his lifetime of visions. For much of his life he has entertained visitors from "the other side", most of his visits are from a daughter who passed away many years ago. The last visitation he had from his daughter, was one in which she had a very important message for him. During that visit she told him he would have a stroke very soon (which he did have a week later). Mr. W. said she told him , he and Mrs. W's lives would become drastically different, as he had been the healthier of the two, he had been his wife's caregiver, but that would have to change after his stroke. And, even though Mrs. W was ill herself, she would be able to care for him, and he would still be able care for Mrs. W, they would lovingly care for each other. Mr.W. said it was important to his daughter that he know this.

Aside from several physical illnesses, Mrs. W also has a mental illness, a form of Dissociative Identity Disorder --multiple personalities--. She has been married 4 other times, much of two of those marriages she says she does not remember. She has been on the streets homeless, she was abused as a child, raped as an adult, addicted to drugs and alcohol, violated physically and mentally dissociated throughout most of those years. But strongly states she has not had any difficulties with disassociating since finding God, and meeting Mr. W.

As I wrote earlier, there is much of their story in which I have to suspend my disbelief. For who am I to say what they believe to be true is wrong? I cannot prove it or disprove it. They are kind loving good people. Two people filled with hope, love and a very strong faith in their God. That seems to be what they need. That seems to work quite well for them. It seems I (or at least the government programs I represent) are an answer to their prayers as well.

I do find it rather odd to combine what I know of evangelical Christianity, with some of Mrs. W's other practices. On my last visit, she was just finishing up having her future read by a Tarot reader, and when I asked about it, she said it gave her strength to know what was in store for her in the future. She then told me I have been in her prayers for the past few months, and that a blessing was going to enter my life soon. (The puppies? Are they my blessing? I am fascinated, spending hours watching them grow and change every day. Right now they are a blessing, although in a few weeks that will change when they become 8 little poop machines...)

In the details of the stories I have heard over the years, there are many ways people find hope. Many different realities I suppose. We each search for answers that will aid us. Some of us may call what Mr. and Mrs. W believe blind faith, some call it escaping from reality, some call it...other things. The way I look at it, whatever they believe, as long as it causes no harm to anyone, and it gives them hope, strength, and a sustaining faith in life itself, then it's OK with me.

~A little bit of a blogging topic offshoot~ But, and this is a very strong but...I also have to unequivocally state, when someone attempts to force their beliefs on me, or anyone else for that matter, or, it causes harm to others, then I do have a problem with it.

In our world, throughout the history of mankind, there has been, is, and will continue to be a lot of injustices done...Mankind has fought wars, taken up arms against others for many reasons--territorial greed, hunger, economics, lust for power, defense against external and internal threats, or religious zeal.-- But no matter how much I read, or, how many sociologists, ethnologists, or anthropologists wish to point out religious and cultural differences, I find it difficult to believe that deep down almost everyone all over the world doesn't hold the wish for peace to occur between us all.

Sharing the stories of life, one person, one slice at a time, has to be one of the answers to accepting our fellow brothers and sisters of the world as...just like us...only different.

"Responsibility does not only lie with the leaders of our countries or with those who have been appointed, or elected to do a particular job. It lies with each of us individually..."
~HH the Dalai Lama~

*made love on it


S'mee said...

Beautifully written, and thought provoking. Spent my early working life in selling and the later part in caring, so can relate to so much. Religion bothers me though.

X. Dell said...

(1) I'm thinking that by now all of us have lost either friends or family members to AIDS. It's almost impossible here in New York not to know someone who is HIV positive.

(2) The husband makes me think of what psychologist Karen Horney called the aggressive personality. Aggressive personalities tend to be quite generous, and showy about their generosity. They don't take no for an answer, whether they're doing the taking or the giving.

I'm sure his wife must have been fed up to HERE with his generosity, especially since it didn't allow her to excercise any will of her own. I wouldn't be surprised if he's fluent in snide remarks.

(3) I agree that forcing one to accept one's vision is pretty much the same as trying to get them to submit under their will. We don't see this as aggression in our society, usually, but it is. It irks me too.

(4) Mr. and Mrs. W. sound quite interesting to me. I've been reading a number of studies where psychiatrists are beginning to suspect that DID is caused mainly through iatrogenesis. It isn't a disorder that comes naturallly, acoording to them.

I'll be curious to where this research leads, and if shrinks come to a definite opinion about it. But when I read about people like Mrs. W., I always stop to ponder.