I was 17 or 18 years old, still very self-concerned, when my mother pressed me into service as her “driver” for a day. She was working as a healthcare manager for a number of patients whose many ailments required them to receive in-home care. Many of her clients became the lessons she shared at our dinner table, as her lifelong passion for serving the poor and downtrodden left a mark on her children and grandchildren’s young minds.

Despite these lessons, I was not ready for the experience she created. I was more a listener than an inquirer in those days, and I failed to ask thoughtful questions that may have slightly prepared me (had she given honest answers). So I was feeling a bit sullen and put-out as we approached the apartment of an army veteran in a government-financed project – a building barren of architectural character, whose function was shelter as a barn provides stalls to its animal inhabitants.

I do not remember the gentleman’s name now that thirty-five years have passed, but I will never forget what I learned from him.

The Gift of Dignity

My mother spoke to him and with him like a drill sergeant. She had his health and welfare to attend to, so her speech was clearly intended to command his attention. I had myself witnessed this characteristic over the years, but was surprised that her banter was so curt. She checked vitals, discussed diet, and set me to work shortly thereafter.

The patient was having some difficulty passing urine. The problem was not that there was too little, but rather too much and in an uncontrolled fashion. The apartment floor was literally covered in patches of it, ranging from moist all the way to caked-on dry yellow. Needless to say, the smell was brutal.

It turned out that my mother had been visiting this client for some time. Her familiarity with his bark and the demeanor she evoked as we entered simply meant she had a mission in mind. Most likely with her own money and during her last visit, the bucket and mop were strategically placed in my view.

Surely most clients would have removed the cleaning tools from where she placed them, but this client was without legs. As he barked orders from ground level and mobilized himself on stiff, rocking arms and worn knuckles, I was dumbstruck. He did not see his immediate world the way my mother did, and he was not the least bit entertained by the young help she had arranged. Perhaps embarrassed, perhaps proud, the incontinence he was experiencing was simply an extension of the permanent disability he had learned to cope with.

To my mother, it was completely unacceptable that he should have to live in his own filth, so her goal was to see to it the place was cleaned up while she had the authority to do so. There was no changing his condition, but her hope was to ameliorate the physical malady with dignity and clean floors.

Making A Choice

There was no turning back once I was in that apartment with my mother. There was a choice to be made regarding the client, however. I could listen to him rant and rave, to his commands not to touch a thing, or I could carry my mother’s torch with which new light was to be shed on this man’s small world.

I filled the bucket with disinfectant and warm water and set the mop in motion.

Rather than embrace my feelings of guilt, of anger, disgust, or fear, I simply set about the work at hand. I suppose this is why those who love to work appreciate being engaged in any productive effort. The focus is intense, the mind set to accomplishment, engaged, empowered, and undistracted. My focus was each 12×12 tile I cleaned. No more, no less. Occasionally the bark of our patient would capture my attention briefly, but the job was laid out before me.

Over a short time his shouts died out and eventually he even directed my efforts. A sense of appreciation began to show across his face. There were no words to this effect, just clear appreciation as he inspected my work, waiting until each tile dried before he could traverse the newly-cleaned area on his fists, his gait now slowed by pensiveness and inspection. As his mobility improved on clean, dry flooring and his disdain for my presence lifted, his unspoken thanks was evident.

Following the two-hour clean up he invited us to stay for lunch right there at his little table. There’s nothing like a can of pork and beans after a good, old-fashioned barn cleaning. The awe I felt for this older man was enormous. He was alone and had to suffer the humiliation of his physical incontinence, live in it, walk on his hands in it, and inhale it without the means to attend to it.

We left this patient’s company and moved on to less needy clients. My mother’s workload was intentionally light that day. She had me for just a few hours and she had a mission to accomplish. Anger toward her was a distinct possibility, but I was too full of pride to be called her son to feel anything else.

Seizing the Moment

I write about this many years later because the starkness of my experience has not quelled over time. My suburban existence met face-to-face with the proud, legless, incontinent vet and I experienced a transition from un-inquisitive teenage man/boy to wholly appreciative, awake, present, human being. I participated in a small solution for another human being. What I earlier described as a “choice” was no choice at all. The very act of moving to this man’s support in the face of his annoyed retorts to my Mother reminds me that doing the right thing is really just seizing the moment, BEING PRESENT.

Living in the present, a gift from a parent for life! We were spiritually joined at that moment, where the demands of ‘being in the moment’ exposed the lie behind my sluggish teenage attitude of non-compliance, defiance, and non-communication with my Mother. We were not separate, my Mother and I, nor was I separate from the vet. We were ONE, present, acting in unison.

It struck me in that moment that self-deception is the silly notion that we are separate from each other, rather than whole, complete, and one. We probably all have a story like this one, when we learned to see our togetherness instead of our differences. What’s your story?