This piece was written for an evaluation of the experience of “Charitativa”, the voluntary work service we carry out in one of the Prague hospitals on Saturday morning. The experience is organised by our Communion and Liberation catholic community. There are a couple of older posts of mine in Italian on this experience.
We spend a couple of hours with elderly patients in a post-operation ward, assisting the nurses with some tasks.
This was written for an evaluation meeting. I have been going to Charitativa for about 2 and half years, once a month. I slightly edited the piece for this blog.
“I enjoy more and more going to Charitativa. I look forward to it. I go to bed early on Friday evening so that I can be fresh on Saturday morning, I enjoy that. Last time under the example of one of our volunteer friends, who is always in top shining shape, I also made sure I had a hair cut and was well shaven and perfumed, because it is good to have a nice impact on the patients, they must encounter someone pleasant, fresh, and with good will and energy. In particular one has to compensate for the lack of language skills… 🙂 There have been times when I reached Charitativa depressed, unfresh, and unready. That is awful and disrespectful. Who would want a volunteer to approach you like that? Charitativa is a good opportunity to overcome my depressive states, and for good reasons.
Recent Charitativas have been lighter from the point of view of nursing tasks, compared to the tougher beginnings. Therefore I had a better chance to notice the patients as persons, in real time, rather than being in apnoea for the challenge, and elaborating only later.
One main lesson which I am learning over again is that human life is really one continuous thing, and that the division into ages (childhood, youth, adulthood, elderly age) is certainly useful for many purposes, but in some sense customary. Yes, we change radically in the functioning of body and mind, yet there is something deep in us which mysteriously remains the same, which ties the person together, even when all cells have changed. There is a permanent core which is such that in the eyes of an elderly person one can see the glimpses of a child. The desires of a man for a beautiful girl don’t fade. The dignity of a woman to look proper stays. Self-respect to be able to look after one-self, or least trying to, remains. The wish to be funny and to please, as well as the wish to affirm one self. I noticed the permanence of the character in the people.
I realised this through a very concrete and detailed experience, when I was massaging the limbs of an elderly man with vaseline. He was in his 90s.I rubbed the vaseline on his hands on both sides at once, as it turned out for me to be more practical. This man though did not like to have vaseline on the palm of his hands. Who would like to have that slimy thing on the side that is supposed to be dry and usable, right? But I had put it everywhere, incredibly assuming that because he is old and ill, he could tolerate vaseline on the palm, as a sort of negligible annoyance compared to the rest of his serious health problems. But no. He quite rightly wanted to have it removed with a dry cloth, just as I would have wanted. He asked mildly, with a smile. We don’t change, we are one being which remains.
What remains, we call soul. That constant thing which remains and forms our identity, is also what is in common, in some sense, among us humans. It is what allows me to be able to know that there is something which connects me with an elderly person from the Czech Republic, and makes us not complete foreigners.
Another thing I notice over agian is the diversity of reaction of people to their age and their (ill) condition. It ranges from bravery, to serene acceptance, to humor, to disbelief, to numbness, to rage, to closure. All. Most of the times though I have been completely amazed by the peace and patience that these people have for their very very damaged bodies, and for their often extremely limited ability to express themselves freely, as they were used to, both in terms of freshness of mind, physical energy.
The most real and the most unthinkable fact of life is that we die. And how prepared we are for that, is not at all irrelevant. How we die will express how we lived. No-one at that point will be able to lie, as one can perhaps more easily do at other times of our life. It will not be necessary to speak much then, merely the way we are present at the end moments will speak eloquently for the way we have lived, it will reveal in what we have placed our certainties and priorities, if we dared desiring and following desires, if we wasted time or used it well. At Charitativa we see people living the final steps in very different ways. And these ways seem to be very unrelated to the gravity of their conditions, to the level of education, to the profession held.
Surrendering the *I*, the *self* will be probably rather related to how and how much we have held on to that *I* or that *self* during our life. Surrendering the *I* or the *self* is the great parabola of the human life. How we do it will depend on how much we learned that life is given to us, and must be given back again. In the ultimate sense of surrendering to the end of earthly existence. But also in the ordinary sense that life must be given routinely in acts of love and charity for the good of ourselves (yes, also the good of ourselves) and the good of others. This is perhaps the single greatest message that our Lord has given us, not with a speech, but with an act. Most probably, if we invest on cultivating always with perseverence and patience the awareness that we are not self-standing individuals, but that our being, our deepest fiber lives and grows and is defined by our relationship with God, will help us in reaching more humanely and more peacefully our departure.
If I were now projected on the death bed I would perhaps not score very well. Although there have been several times in my life when I thought “if I die now, I’d die satisfied”, I am quite sure I would have also fears and regrets. So it means that there is more road to cover. Risk more, love more, live more. And think better. 🙂
Going to Charitativa is a way to cast eyes towards the end of the road. This is important, because only with eyes cast at the end and an awareness of the parabola of life, one can tune the present on the right frequency. From the perspective of the end, we can better gauge what we would have wanted us to do in that distant present that once was, and that is, now.
Charitativa is a powerful reminder of all this.”