Thursday, August 13, 2009

Small Acts of Kindness

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
Leo Buscaglia

I watched one of my favorite movies today as I began my preparations to return to Chicago. The movie is called “Blue” and it follows a woman who has lost her husband and daughter in a car wreck as she disappears from her life, and then slowly begins the process of reconnecting to other human beings. The movie ends with a powerful look inside her memory, as pictures flash across the screen representing all of the people who touched her life in some way.

I felt like this today as I thought of all of the people that touched my life in some significant way here in Costa Rica, including dozens, if not hundreds of new friends from all over the place. But it was a blind man with a cane and a lovely lady in a wheelchair both in their 80’s that really registered the most with me today as I think about all of the ways this country has transformed my life.

It began with me attempting to push this little Costa Rica woman named Blanca to the cafeteria for lunch, when she politely touched my hand and pointed me in the other direction. Having had a great deal of experience with women refusing my requests, I politely followed her instructions. She pointed me through a labyrinth of turns in the home until we reached a little room with a man lying inside. “AquĆ­ mismo mi amigo,” (right here my friend) she said softly and slowly patted my hand.

I waited as she tapped softly on the window. Soon a blind man named Leonidas came to the door and took his position behind Blanca’s wheelchair. Slowly they began their walk to lunch, her guiding him slowly with measured directions as he adjusted to his lack of sight. It was kind of wonderful actually.

I asked around a little bit and found out that they walked like this to all of their meals together. They weren’t lovers and they weren’t romantically involved, just two people who had each lost something the other one had, who had worked out a system to get their lunch together despite the somewhat difficult circumstances.

I was incredibly touched by what I saw, and took a long look at them together as they fell into their familiar routine. I learned that they had been doing this for a long while. Anna in fact had many offers to accept a push to the cafeteria, but was always faithful to her little helper Leonidas, who seemed to relish the work of pushing her, despite the fact that he walked with a cane and had completely lost his eyesight.

The Zen Buddhists have a parable that says it is the giver who should be thankful, as they are truly the ones who may gain the most from the ebb and flow of human experience. And this applies to me as well. Although I was the one technically “giving” my time this week in Costa Rica, in the end it was me who was utterly transformed by the people I had the privilege of working with. I will never, ever forget these little acts of kindness I witnessed here, and my strongest wish is that I have somehow absorbed some lessons from all of these things I’ve seen.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Costa Rican Love Story

One of my favorite movie scenes comes from a film called "Smoke", when a writer whose wife died in a car accident begins a conversation with his friend who has taken a picture of his Cigar shop every day for ten years. The writer says he doesn’t understand, and how the pictures look the same to him. The cigar shop owner tells him that if he doesn’t slow down he’s going to miss the point, and at that moment the writer turns to a picture of his deceased wife. Then he gets it. Every day is a unique chance to appreciate the time we’ve been given. Ask anyone and they’ll probably agree with that sentiment, but living it is another matter. The writer would give anything to have just one more day with his wife, and in that moment comes to a new kind of understanding about how he is going to approach his own life.

I was reminded of this today when I spent some time in a little nursing home in Costa Rica. While there I met a wonderful little couple, Lilliam and Alvaro who got married while living at this home in 2006.

I watched them closely today as they held hands and walked slowly to the cafeteria to eat. They stopped along the way to talk to the other folks in the home, all the while checking in with each other about their little trip to go to have their lunch.

When one of these two felt pain, the other suffered as well. They had made a decision to take care of each other, even as their bodies were beginning to deteriorate to the point of almost daily bouts of pain. Somehow they had found this wonderful commitment in their 80’s, despite both having lived very full lives with other spouses, children and grandchildren. They showed me the story of their lives in pictures and stopped many times to point out something particularly funny, or of particular significance to them.

At one point Lilliam, an extremely fun-loving lady who loves to dance, softly began to cry which was a bit out of character for her as much as I could tell. My fellow volunteer asked what was wrong and she said, “Soy preocupante, mi marido soy enfermo”, (I am worried, my husband is sick.). It was quite touching and also very revealing. Although she was still very capable of singing, dancing, laughing, and having fun, this woman was clearly very deeply in love and profoundly upset thinking about her husband being in pain.

I thought about this most of the afternoon, and came to the conclusion that there really is no such thing as being “lucky” in love, despite the fact that people use that word in that context all of the time. Amazingly, many couples who seem to have very strong bonds have some “coincidental” story about how they met, and I am certainly interested in that idea in terms of synchronicity. But really I think we find these romantic coincidences occur a lot more often when we really understand the nature of love as a choice rather than some kind of act of destiny. As the Buddhist’s say, “when the student is ready the teacher appears.”

So yet another life-lesson learned as I blaze my way across this beautiful, mysterious country, where you still go to a little nondescript nursing home in a small corner of the world, and absorb perhaps one of the most powerful lessons you will ever learn. My work with these people will end next week, but they will stay in my heart forever.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Today she would show them. Today was the day she would get out of the chair and demonstrate to the ladies who made her swallow the awful pills how she could dance. Dance like the days back in Roma, when she was a young girl and the boys would wait for hours to have a dance with her, and there was champagne and beautiful flowers.

Yes today she would show them. Show them that she was not just an old lady who wet herself and needed help eating and getting dressed in the morning. Once she had beautiful dresses and she loved to go out and dance and sing and laugh, oh how she loved to laugh. She began pulling herself out of her wheelchair but her arms were simply too weak and she collapsed back into her seat. She tried again, this time getting to her feet and standing up, when she felt a firm hand on her shoulder, “Sit down Isabella!” the one with the pills shouted angrily, and again she collapsed back into the chair. Then it began to happen again, “No, not again!” she thought, but it was happening again, where the picture in her mind began to fade and she was left with nothing but silence in her head.

Isabella was in fact a great beauty at one time, and many men sought her company, but finally she found her beloved Niko, and her heart found what it truly had been looking for. Their life together was wonderful, and the only disappointment was then she was unable to have children due to an infection she had suffered during the Great War. She had in fact nearly died during the war, but God had spared her, and now at the age of 94 she had outlived almost everyone she had ever known.

Isabella had always heard that long life was a blessing, and the part of her that wanted to dance still believed this very much. But it was just that she felt so helpless sometimes, when the ladies would come and change her, and when she would be lying there with no clothes on and men would walk by and not even notice or care. She thought of the time, the first time in Roma, when Niko had kissed her. She had wanted to go further with him, but her mother said she must make men wait, and so that’s what she did.

She and Niko had waited until they had gotten married and then she gave herself to him totally and completely. He was the only man that had ever seen all of her, and now men walked by her all of the time and could see her and look at her, and she felt very ashamed. Why don’t they shut the door or cover me, she thought angrily, am I not still a woman who wants that part of her to remain private? Many men back in Italy had wanted to see her, but she was a Catholic girl and this was strictly forbidden. “Don’t they know?” she thought to herself, “Don’t they know that her father used to chase the boys away when they would come to see her too late at night?” These thoughts suddenly made her mind very tired and she put her head down and gave way to sleep.

When she awoke she was in the dining room, and someone had placed a big white bib on her so she wouldn’t spill. She looked to one side and saw a man, a handsome man, but very old, who simply stared straight ahead and paid no attention to her at all. She looked further and saw the one with pills, and decided that the time was now. She pushed herself up in the chair and got to her feet, and for a second she felt like a young girl again. She placed her arms around her imaginary partner’s neck and began shuffling her feet back and forth, imagining the grand ballrooms of Roma as she swayed back and forth. But then a hand came crashing onto her shoulder and she snapped back into the present. “Sit down before you break your neck,” the one with the pills shouted angrily. And she complied, but finally, at last she had a secret. She knew that at least for a moment she could go to a place in her mind that they couldn’t touch or take away from her. She slumped back into the chair, and soon these wonderful memories faded into silence, and Isabella’s mind grew quiet until the next time.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bernard and the Star-Spangled Banner

Bernard had always loved baseball. When he was a kid he had an old tire in his backyard and he used to hit the tire with his bat and also try and throw a strike through the center of it. He could still go there in his mind sometimes, but not as much as he liked anymore, and it made him angry. He once heard the nurse tell someone he was a "discipline problem” and he vaguely remembered that that wasn't a good thing. It was just that he wanted to be alone, and didn't see how his withering away was anyone's problem but his own.

He had been a proud man, an officer in the United States Army, and now he was in a wheelchair and couldn't even spit out a sentence without it sounding like gibberish. They told him he had had a stroke and he remembered the men coming into his house and then bringing him into the home, but there were huge patches of his life he just couldn't bring back anymore. He looked up from these frustrating thoughts and a woman was putting a white bib around his neck, and he angrily took it off and threw it on the ground.

"Now Bernard, if you keep that up you won't get to come to the Independence Day Party this afternoon," the woman scolded him.

He grunted back to her and begrudgingly let her put the bib back onto his chest. Independence Day? He thought to himself. Did she mean the Fourth of July? He closed his eyes and tried very hard to make his brain work correctly for a moment. And then he remembered, yes of course, the Fourth of July! He remembered coming back from World War 2 and how that next Fourth of July had been the most meaningful of his life. He had met his wife at the USO and they had even bought a little house with the help of the GI bill. He thought about all of the friends he had lost during World War 2 and how God had somehow spared him. Why him? He had often wondered. What had he done to be spared when so many others didn't come home? These thoughts had come rushing into his head, and now he was tired and confused by all the activity his brain had conjured up. He nodded off to sleep in his chair and reluctantly gave way to sleep.

When Bernard awoke, he looked up and he was in the middle of some kind of party. There were Red, White, and Blue streamers all over, and someone had put a party hat on his head. He looked towards the television and some men were throwing a baseball around, and he smiled and turned his attention that way. Looking around the room he saw that it was a party and he thought he might as well enjoy it. He began wheeling towards the television and got immediately exhausted. Bernard hadn't stood up in many, many years, and even a little exercise made him very tired. He heard a woman announce to the room,

"Let's all listen to the Star-Spangled Banner"...

And then he remembered, the Fourth of July!! He turned to the television and heard the words.

"Oh say can you see, by the dawn's early light!"

And he knew what he had to do. He summoned all of the strength he had and begun pushing himself up out of his chair. As he stood up he removed his hat and placed it over his heart, and the words came back to him like it was yesterday. He began singing the words out loud and as he did a single tear ran down his cheek, but no matter. It was the Fourth of July and he remembered what this day had meant to him, what he had done for his country, and the men who hadn't made it back. He continued to sing until the energy left his body and he slumped back down into his chair.