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The place was akin to a terrestrial purgatory. When I eventually gained the courage to trudge up to the abandoned reception desk and shakily sign my name and the time in a binder with crumpled pages, I shivered under the atmosphere that enveloped me. There was some semblance of peace in the quiet, but I was also greeted by icy tendrils of despair.
The hospital was old. The walls whispered countless tragedies under flickering yellow lights. The squeaks that my shoes procured from the linoleum sounded like exclamations of tales long since forgotten. How many had suffered, I wondered?
How many had died?
Despite my acceptance of the human condition, I was a quiet, timid soul. Volunteering at local hospitals to enrich my application for nursing school had been my parents’ idea, one that I agreed with because I had already been nursing my grandfather for years. Still, the people I would encounter would not be my grandfather. The stern nurses would not be my parents. The phrase “a butterfly in a wasp nest” accurately describes the anxiety I felt then. Every weekend, I loathed to emerge from a short elevator climb only to be greeted by a cacophony of alarms and the dour faces of the staff. Yet even in that darkness, God still worked. Even in that darkness, tiny candles of hope still flickered.
The first wick was lit when I was sitting near an office phone overlooking the main hallway with its faded pink doors, wringing my hands, and debating what I should do that hadn’t already been done. I’d went into all the rooms where the patients were awake. I restocked supplies in the break room. I made sure all linens were in order.
What was I to do?
I glanced upward and a pang bloomed inside my chest once I observed an elderly woman with white cotton candy hair playing with her fingers and staring listlessly in front of her.
My thoughts turned toward the gnarled guardian who was waiting for me to come home. Even he, with all his talk of solace in solitude, did not like to be lonely. This stranger might not either.
Go to her, a voice within me spoke. My teeth worried the inside of my cheek. Talking to strangers with ease was not a skill I possessed. I was uncertain whether there was anything I could offer her besides a stammered greeting and a pregnant silence.
Go to her.
Oh, but if the phone rang and I wasn’t here, surely others will be displeased. Never mind that the phone hadn’t rung in at least forty-five minutes. It might the moment I walk away and that’s what matters.
Go to her. The words within me grew more urgent.
I clenched my fists against my thighs, my nails leaving imprints of mocking smiles against the sweaty flesh of my palms, before I conceded. I reluctantly left my station and entered the room. Spying a “Hearing Impaired” sign, I raised my voice in greeting. “Hello, ma’am. Would you perhaps like some company?”
She turned at the sound of my voice and her features lit up, eyes crinkling as she smiled. “I would. Come, sit next to me.”
I didn’t even need to worry about conversation. She was full of words, lively fluttering doves that carried messages about her past as a line dancer and her surprising amount of contentment at her current life. She was blind and nearly deaf but she was all smiles. She made it clear that, although her body was weary and bent, she was not broken. I smiled and nodded along to her story and sympathetically held her hand when she explained the fall that forced her into that place. I marveled at the intimacy we shared, even though we hardly knew each other. I glanced down at our intertwined hands. Mine smooth and pale, her’s shriveled with a map of blue veins and sun spots that testified how far she had traveled.
I watched as men in stiff blue uniforms came to transport her to another facility. I waved, momentarily forgetting that she could not see the gesture, and bid her goodbye. “They better treat you well over there or else they’ll have to answer to me!”
I was grateful that her journey hadn’t ended.
Another flame flickered to life in the tender words of a man who either didn’t understand my name or didn’t want to get it right. Instead of Megan, he called me “Maggie.” I didn’t mind in the slightest and felt flattered at his constant invitations to take me out dancing.
“Fraid I used ta have a bit of a problem with smokin’,” he confided in me.
“Some do,” I replied. “Be glad that you quit. My uncle still smokes like a train.”
It struck a hidden chord and he wheezed. My heart stopped. I feared he was undergoing an attack of some sort before I registered the mirth in his almond-shaped eyes. He was laughing. The sound of it warmed the room and reverberated out into the hallway. Even if it was a hybrid of gasping and scratchy vocalizations that reminded me of my uncle’s emphysema, I knew I would never hear a more beautiful sound as long as I lived.
After my shift ended, I waited for the nursing aides to finish attending to him before re-entering the still glowing chamber. With a surprising amount of regret, I told him I had to go.
“Will I see you again?” he inquired hopefully.
“Will you be here on Tuesday?” I countered.
From the troubled look he offered, I surmised that he would move on before I had the chance at another encounter.
Yet as quickly as the darkness came, he banished it again with another sincere smile. “Well, Maggie, if I don’ see ya here on earth, I’ll see ya in heaven. ‘N we’ll dance together in front of Jesus.”
When I returned on Tuesday to find his room occupied with someone else, I found the entire building poorer for it. Still, although he was not physically present, his words were still warming my heart. I looked at the ancient halls with new eyes. No longer did I let despair’s frigid grip gain purchase.
Whenever it tried, I reminded it of the candles that were already lit.
In the ensuing five months, I felt less like a soldier fighting a losing battle and more like a healer, an extension of God’s hands, distributing hope along with those tiny disposable trash bags and cups of water. I felt it when I joined hands with a large family to pray over their loved one. I felt it when a woman embraced me like her own daughter and kissed my cheek. I felt it when I heard patients thank me for (sadly) being the first person to smile at them that day. I felt it when I captained wheelchairs downstairs and shared one last heartfelt goodbye.
I felt genuine regret when I handed in my badge and resignation in preparation for the upcoming school year. I had made so many memories and touched so many lives. And although I no longer plan on becoming a nurse, the experience in that bleak place gave me new eyes and a new heart for the hurting.
When I drove away from that squat edifice for the last time, the little orbs of flame that I helped to light followed me all the way home.
Written by: M