By Larry Patten
My questions were casual.
Sarah’s blunt answers weren’t.
“Sarah” is a pseudonym. I know several nice Sarahs, and this pretend Sarah certainly fit into the nice category. To further protect confidentiality, I’ll dub her friend as “Aspen.” Both women were in their mid-twenties, assistants on the staff where I did physical therapy for a troublesome left knee. They comfortably joked with patients, shared encouraging words, and often took extra moments to make sure those of us in therapy knew the whys and hows of what we were doing.
On this day, Sarah was the one reminding me which exercise was next. She brought me the yellow flexible ball to help stretch my lower body, and later set the timer for how long I should move my limbs back and forth, side to side. I usually bantered with her, though sometimes I silently plowed through the series of exercises.
When finished with the yellow ball, I asked Sarah a casual question that led to her blunt answers.
“Aspen told me she started working here because you recommended her for the job. Is that true?” (See . . . just a casual conversation with a casual question.)
Sarah grinned. “Right. She graduated from college and didn’t know what to do next. I told her she should give this a try.”
“How’d you and Aspen meet?” (Still casual, right?)
Sarah paused. Or did she? Did I later, recalling our spontaneous exchange, add a pause?
“Aspen was good friends with my fiancé. He died a couple of years ago.”
Just like that.
Sarah, always vibrant and bubbly as she helped the patients, had quietly disclosed some of the worst news in her young life. We continued talking while others around us worked their shoulders or knees or hands, all trying to recover from damaged bodies. In brief, hushed sentences, Sarah told me about her fiancé dying in a motorcycle accident, and how important that her caring family and friends (like Aspen) had been and continued to be. I mentioned my work at a hospice in bereavement support, where I spent time with those mourning the death of a loved one.
I suspected Sarah had other conversations like the one with me. While she may have extended our chat after learning about my job and sensing my “expertise,” her initial response was to just another one of her patients with a cranky knee. I wondered if her sharing had once included tears or that she simply never volunteered any information. But now, if someone asked about her life—to get to know her better, to deepen a potential relationship—had Sarah decided to let people hear the hardest truths? I think her honest, unadorned words were like sentries on a castle wall, warning about an approaching threat. After all, many of us dread conversations about death. Everyone who has had a loved one die like Sarah has probably experienced strangers, co-workers, and even “close” friends abruptly changing the subject. Worse yet, some people literally avoid the subject and the grieving person.
Her fiancé had died because of the negligence of another driver. Once a soldier in Afghanistan, he’d survived a tour-of-duty only to return home, dying on a tree-lined suburban street on a sunny day. He and Sarah had hopes and dreams, but now she told his (and her) terrible story to me. One day alive. The next day . . .
Sarah thanked me for listening. She smiled, guileless and unwavering. Still with that smile, Sarah told me to get started with my next exercise. Tough woman.
A few moments later, she swung by the raised table where I was finishing leg lifts. She whispered, “See the guy over there?”
I nodded. He looked to be in his early seventies. He was lean, seemingly in good shape. However, as he stepped up-and-down on a platform, I detected a hitch in his right knee. He, like me, was grappling with a leg injury.
“He lost his wife a week-and-a-half ago,” Sarah continued in her whisper. “So, so sad.” Lost. Gone. Died.
I did my final leg lifts. Out of the corner of my eye I watched the lanky man with the slight weakness in his right knee step up-and-down. Up-and-down.
Sarah departed to assist a newly arrived patient.
Some injuries are easily seen. Others are invisible. Some injuries, with hard work, will heal. Others remain, a hitch in the soul.
Lost. Gone. Died. The room was filled with the wounded.
Aren’t all rooms?
Larry Patten is a writer, a United Methodist minister and currently serves as a Bereavement Support Specialist at a hospice in Fresno, California. He has had essays published in his local newspaper (Fresno Bee) and national magazines like Spirituality and Health. Along with working on a novel, he maintains www.larrypatten.com (musings about faith) and www.hospice-matters.com (thoughts about dying, death, and grief).