“To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” ~Bertrand Russell
9.16.03 los angeles, ca
RUTH DOESN’T WANT ME TO TAKE HER PICTURE. She thinks her eyes look puffy and red from crying. I think they look fine.
If she had a computer, Ruth could tell me whether or not she approved of today’s fuzzy photo. I tried to give her my old HP desktop not long after we were introduced 3 years ago by Kay Ginsberg from Friends to the Elderly, the program I’ve been a volunteer with since 1994.
But the perfectly functioning computer that was gonna be Ruth’s window into cyberspace just sat on the faux wood desk in her living room, freaking her out. At 76, the idea of joining the digital revolution sends Ruth into a nervous tizzy.
“You can take your computer back, darling,” she told me a week after I’d lugged it over to her small 1-bedroom apartment. “I’m too old to learn how to use one of those things. Besides, I probably couldn’t see it too well anyway with my eyes like they are.”
My friend Ruth is a woman consumed with fear and worry. And no wonder. Her gluttonous TV diet consists largely of watching the news and the various analysis shows. So of course Ruth is worried about terrorists. Health care benefits. Her 3 adult children. Her finances. Her heart.
Tonight she told me she’s been worried about getting the West Nile virus. Especially after talking to her daughter-in-law recently, who told her how brutal the mosquitos have been lately in Sharon, Massachusetts, the largely Jewish New England town 30 minutes south of Boston where Ruth wants to relocate to be closer to her youngest son David and his family.
I called Ruth tonight just after 7 to see if I could stop by for one final visit before I hit the road again. I told her how my LA departure had been delayed, due to the fact that the mechanic I took VanGo to for a tune-up today told me I need to rebuild both carburetors. Ruth gasped when I told her I was looking at a $500 bill, with no guarantees they could even get it done by the end of today.
“So I decided to get a second opinion,” I told Ruth. “I’m gonna spend the night at my sister Jeni’s place in Yucaipa. Hopefully the guy out there who worked on my car back in June can give me a more optimistic diagnosis and get it fixed in time for me to get on the road at a decent hour.
“But in the meantime,” I added, “would you mind if I stopped by on my way out of town to say goodbye?”
“Oh, Robert, COULD you?” Ruth gushed. “That’s exaclty what I need right now. I was just having a bout of the blues before you called.”
* * *
When I got to her place, Ruth told me about her latest worries. During a visit last week to her old cardiologist, the doc told her she shouldn’t be taking the medication she’s on for her diabetes. Apparently, the drug causes fluid retention, a fact none of her other doctors ever mentioned.
“Retaining fluids is what’s causing most of my problems,” Ruth said with a desperate mix of amazement and frustration. “The stuff with my lungs, the shortness of breath — and you mean to tell me NONE of my other 4 doctors knew that this drug I was on caused fluid retention? And if they DID know, why didn’t they tell me?!”
As Ruth shared her story, her eyes filled with tears and were instantly ringed in red. She conceded that she doesn’t know who to believe. She said she’s lost all faith in the medical system.
“I just want to DIE,” she said through the tears. “I’m not kidding. It’s all too much. I just wish I was dead.”
I pointed out to Ruth that she didn’t JUST lose her faith in the medical system. She’d already lost that a while ago.
“Plus,” I added, “it sounds like this whole situation is actually a good thing. The doctor says you should stop taking the diabetes medication. Which means one less pill to take. And not taking it should help your fluid retention, right? So now you’re breathing and all the other stuff the fluid retention affected just might improve. Right?”
Ruth wiped her eyes and laughed.
“So congratulations on your good news!” I told her, deftly taking her gloomy story and giving it the optimist’s sunny spin.
Minutes later Ruth was calling me her guardian angel. “I’d been so upset and I was praying to God. And then you called and showed up. It’s like you were dropped from heaven.”
When people ask me why I do volunteer work, I’m never quite able to articulate my reasons adequately. Maybe because there’s a million reasons. A series of little moments that add up to something bigger than any of us.
Moments like watching an old lady’s face light up when you enter the room.
Like hearing a kid who’s never trusted anyone somehow get up the courage to tell you he loves you for the first time.
Like the satisfaction of realizing that simply LISTENING is enough. And always will be enough.
Like witnessing a weary old soul fight off her armor of fear and pessimism long enough to wallow and glow in the adventure and absurdity of YOUR story.
It might sound trite and sentimental, but there is nothing like the gift of giving. Of knowing you helped someone’s heart sing again.
Tonight before we said our goodbyes, I saw the light return to Ruth’s eyes, if only for a while. She was cracking up over my twisted logic. And she was beaming when I told her about the 2 friends of mine who, over the last few days, have offered to underwrite my crazy trip for a year.
For a split second there, I almost forgot about how, a mere 20 minutes ago, Ruth said she wished she was dead.
* * *
I don’t know when I’m gonna be able to get online again. That mechanic I came all the way out here to Yucaipa to see? Well, I discovered tonight at 1 in the morning when I went to drop off VanGo that he is going on vacation tomorrow. Now I’ve got to head out to a place he recommended 15 miles down the road in Beaumont.
Hopefully, this new guy can get VanGo healthy again. And pronto.
At this rate, I’m gonna be flying on NoDoz and ice tea just to hit Baton Rouge in time for LSU/Georgia on Saturday.
I’ll keep you posted, Ruston.
An edited version of this post appears in the book B.O.B a blog story (vol. 1 — here & there).