I’ve had the experience these last couple of weeks to provide break-time to a long-term caregiver who watches over a dementia patient living here in my village. The caregiver is on duty 24/7 when at the care-center where the patient stays, and the patient is a sweet fragile woman who is very much in her own world and who can rarely put together a sentence longer than about four words. The caregiver is polite and attentive but is also fatigued, and has arranged through my volunteer agency to use the ninety-minute respites I can offer to walk to the grocery, get some air, have a conversation anywhere but within the care-center walls, or whatever.
I asked the caregiver a few questions about my patient the first time I visited. “What would she like to talk about? How can I engage her?”, but got no real answers other than a blanket explanation that she was mostly alone in her own world and I could do whatever I wanted – which was not satisfying for me to hear. I knew that I wanted to interact with my patient but also not do or say anything upsetting to her, and so I immediately started browsing my library for Something Intelligent But Neutral to read to her as an alternative to watching her stare at daytime TV. I found gold in the corner of my shelves where John Steinbeck sits: a much-loved-by-me travelogue/biography from 1962 called “Travels With Charley”, in which the author roams the US in a pickup camper accompanied by a standard poodle with that improbable name.
My patient knows enough to know when she does or does not want to be read-to, and understands enough to laugh when she hears something funny or interesting, and we both took delight in a page that I have long remembered enjoying and found again yesterday – a description of a New England Presbyterian church that Steinbeck chose randomly to attend fifty years ago:
The service did my heart and I hope my soul some good. It had been long since I had heard such an approach. It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins aren’t really sins at all but accidents that are set in motion by forces beyond our control. There was no such nonsense in this church. The minister, a man of iron with tool-steel eyes and a delivery like a pneumatic drill, opened up with prayer and reassured us that we were a pretty sorry lot. And he was right. We didn’t amount to much to start with, and due to our own tawdry efforts we had been slipping ever since. Then, having softened us up, he went into a glorious sermon, a fire-and-brimstone sermon. Having proved that we, or perhaps only I, were no damn good, he painted with cool certainty what was likely to happen to us if we didn’t make some basic reorganizations for which he didn’t hold out much hope. He spoke of hell as an expert, not the mush-mush hell of these soft days, but a well-stoked, white-hot hell served by technicians of the first order. This reverend brought it to a point where we could understand it, a good hard coal fire, plenty of draft, and a squad of open-hearth devils who put their hearts into their work, and their work was me. I began to feel good all over. For some years now God has been a pal to us practicing togetherness, and that causes the same emptiness a father does playing softball with his son. But this Vermont God cared enough about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me. He put my sins in a new perspective. Whereas they had been small and mean and nasty and best forgotten, this minister gave them some size and bloom and dignity. I hadn’t been thinking very well of myself for some years, but if my sins had this dimension there was some pride left. I wasn’t a naughty child but a first-rate sinner, and I was Going to Catch It.
I felt so revived in spirit that I put five dollars in the plate, and afterward, in front of the church, shook hands with the minister and as many of the congregation as I could … All across the country I went to church on Sundays, but nowhere did I find the quality of that Vermont preacher. He forged a religion designed to last, not predigested obsolescence.
My patient probably wasn’t able to appreciate (or discern) much of what Steinbeck was saying. She may have only been reacting to the amusement in my face and voice as I read the passage to her while I reflected on my own current-and-substantial spiritual wrestling-matches with the Almighty. But her enjoyment was genuine enough for her, and that was good enough for that Friday.
Moral: Gold is often where you’re not looking for it –