When I first heard the Dalai Lama say, “Kindness is my true religion,” the words really hit home, right here in my heart. Thwump! Many years later, an eighty-year-old Zen master told me, “Our practice is a string of pearls.”
So, this is a story about kindness and a practice of stringing pearls.
Deep in the woods of Oregon in 1985, at the end of a ten-day silent retreat on Death and Dying, our teacher Stephen Levine instructed us to turn to the person beside us and offer something that felt like a risk. Though the month was August, the man I turned toward shivered under a mound of gray fleece. He wore a ski cap, sweat pants, big puffy mittens that looked like boxing gloves, and heavy woolen socks. When I offered him a foot massage, he did not even turn to look at me. “You wouldn’t want to massage my feet,” he said.
He slowly unrolled one of his socks to reveal a spray of deep purple polka dots across the instep of his skinny naked foot. “Do you see that one?” he asked, pointing directly to the largest dot of all upon his arch. I nodded. “That was the very first one. Even though I’m a nurse, I didn’t even know what it was at the time.” We both stared at the splotch, a half inch in diameter, shaped perfectly like a heart.
“Now, do you still want to give me a foot massage?” he asked.
That bold little purple heart that made me say “yes” without hesitating is the first pearl of this story.
When I arrived at Johns Hopkins University a few weeks later to begin a graduate fellowship in Writing, I registered my thesis as “The Ecology of AIDS: People Who Are Dying and Their Caregivers.”
The chairman initially rejected my topic, saying it should be fiction, but when I persisted, he finally agreed, as long as I could find someone to sponsor me at the medical school. I got an appointment with Hank Shaw, a maverick infectious disease physician in the epidemiology department at the medical school. When he heard my proposal, he stopped and looked me straight in the eye, “Okay, but here’s the deal: You can follow me around as long as you don’t get in the way too much. You have to enroll in three classes here—Epidemiology, Infectious Disease, and Immunology. And, within a month, you have to find a way to be useful. This is an epidemic. There’s no time to waste. We need every caring heart and able body. Got it?” So, Dr. Hank Shaw is the second pearl.
During the next eighteen months, as the AIDS epidemic revealed itself as a modern-day plague, I came to know many life stories of those first Hopkins AIDS patients intimately: migrant workers from rural chicken farms, hustlers from Baltimore’s tenderloin district, or poor African American women who were sleeping with IV drug users. Only a few gay white men lay dying with us at that time in inner-city Baltimore.
No matter who they were, though, regardless of race, class, gender or sexual orientation, the hospital was the only option for them in those days. There were no community services in place to care for them if they were discharged. No home care, no hospice, no interfaith network of volunteers. Nothing.
Hank assigned me first to the sickest patient on the floor, Randy Johns. When I arrived at the visitor’s desk for the initial visit, feeling nervous, the female guard barked at me, “Visiting hours are over in fifteen minutes. Where’re you going? What’s the patient’s name?”
“Randy Johns on Osler Five,” I replied.
“Oh . . . sure, okay. Those people really need visitors.” Then she picked up the phone, and called the nurse’s station on that floor.
“Randy Johns’s cousin is coming up to see him,” she purred into the phone, “Let her stay a little past time, will ya?”
I dreaded going up to the room under that false pretense, but did not argue with her. A nurse met me at the elevator door with a slight smile, saying, “He doesn’t have many visitors. Been here for over a month. And he’s so-o-o-o sick.”
His room was darkening in twilight as I crossed the threshold. The nurse flipped on the light switch to reveal a tiny black pencil of a man swaddled in white sheets. “What part of my family are you from?” he laughed, holding out a stick-thin arm to me. Pearl number three.
Randy and I spent part of every day together after that for the next two months. I brought my epidemiology textbooks to his bedside, and we listened to music of his choice on a beat-up eight-track tape deck. I also often stood guard at his door while he slumped in his wheelchair before the open window smoking a cigarette.
He introduced himself to everyone as “Bojangles.” When pressed for more detail, he would offer, “I’m a street musician and flashy dancer.” He played the harmonica and any instrument with strings, and he described himself to me as “a cross between Taj Mahal and Miles Davis. Only better.” He had moved to Baltimore in his late teens, and had made money by cooking at the “fry table” in a big hotel kitchen. Calling himself “a weekend heroin addict,” he was loosely committed to a mostly absent common-law wife who sold cocaine in high-end hotels and “did hair” in low-end beauty salons.
But, he was totally devoted to their two-year-old daughter, Veranda, who was dropped off by her mother at the hospital lobby play-care center nearly every day. Children were not yet allowed on the AIDS floor in those early days. When he found out she was on site, just five floors below his room, he became agitated. “Go down and bring her up,” he insisted to me, knowing it was futile.
As I struggled to pass my advanced science courses, I continued to follow Hank and his courageous team of interns and grad students around the hospital. Soon I began to receive additional assignments from him like, “Find out why there’s no spiritual care on this floor, will you?” “Why can’t the kids visit their Moms? When you know why, make it happen.” “Get some great downtown bakery to donate chocolate croissants for the staff up here, okay?”
My primary “usefulness” evolved as I became involved in community outreach and volunteer training. It was an epidemic and we needed help. And Randy continued to waste away.
He got down to eighty pounds, becoming drug resistant to every antibiotic ever used to treat pneumocystis pneumonia. At that point, Hank found us a way to get Veranda up into his room. “This virus isn’t infectious unless you’re sharing needles or having sex,” he repeated over and over again to lessen the fear factor to everyone on the floor. “But don’t go sharing Coca-Colas or giving anybody a big sloppy kiss either,” he warned.
I brought the baby often into Randy’s room during his last four days. Even as his life force dimmed, he brightened each time she entered the room. “Hi Little V,” he would say, “hi, baby.” Veranda looked so much like him. Almond-shaped eyes, long lashes, and an expression of mischief just like her father. “Don’t bring her too close,” he warned me. “I don’t want her to catch whatever this shit is . . .”
One day, Randy asked for a lawyer. “What for?” I asked. “To write a will,” he replied curtly, “I’ve got stuff to decide.” Hank called the hospital’s legal office and made a special request on Randy’s behalf—“Send a lawyer with a heart over here, will you, please? Someone especially good, to take notes from a dying patient.”
Pearl number four, a young Pakistani attorney with a radiant smile, arrived within the hour. She pulled a chair up close to Randy’s bed, and sat poised with pen and notepad. “Please tell me, Sir, what you need. I will write your words down just as you say them.” Then she turned to me and Hank, who were accustomed to being in Randy’s room all the time, and asked us to leave so she and her client could have some privacy. Randy grinned as we left. “They sent Bojangles an angel,” he said with more energy than he had shown all day.
The next morning, Randy asked in a weak voice, “Hold my head in your hands as I go, yeah? Don’t leave?”
Watching his bony chest heave up and down for many hours, and sweat bead up on his brow, I held him and breathed with him as if he were in labor. The intervals between his inhalations slowly increased. His exhalations became erratic and shallow. Sliding in and out of lucidity, he sometimes looked me in the eye and babbled in a whispery voice like a scat singer, stringing together little bits of melody, nonsense syllables and sounds of a liminal language I could not decipher. Gray twilight blurred the edges of the bed, the blankets, my hands, Randy’s head. Finally, his eyes fluttered and his teeth chattered for a moment, and then his breath stopped. The heat slowly drained from his forehead. We spent an hour there in silence until one of his favorite nurses appeared in the doorway to ask if I wanted to bathe his body together. The experience of bathing Randy’s body was the fifth pearl.
Exhausted, I finally returned home to my own bed. Early the next morning, Hank called my apartment to tell me that the lawyer wanted to see both of us as soon as I could get back to the hospital. I gripped a cup of coffee as we sat down in her office. She held Randy’s will in her hands.
“He left Veranda to you,” she told me.
“What?” My heart pounded against my ribs.
“Yes. He told me his wife disappeared. He wanted you to take care of her.”
“But, I can’t, “I protested, desperately looking for confirmation from Hank who stoically stared back at me. “There’s no way I can take care of a baby—”
“No other family?” Hank interrupted, silencing me with his eyes.
“A mother in South Carolina,” she said. “He hasn’t been in touch with her in years.”
“Got an address for her?” Hank said.
“He told me the name of the town…”
“Good . . . we’ll find her,” Hank smiled and reached out to hug her. “Thanks for helping us. And him.”
Turning to me, he said, “The docs on the floor will buy a train ticket for his body, and for you and the baby. Epidemiology students know how to track people down. It’s our specialty, right?”
Pearl number six was the trip to Columbia, South Carolina, two days later. Randy’s mother and two sisters had been easily located by Hank’s epidemiology sleuths. Though in shock, they were grateful to be notified, and overjoyed to be receiving Randy’s daughter after years of no contact with him. Veranda and I rode a slow hot train together for ten hours. Because she knew me, she fussed only a little in my arms at first, and slowly became entranced by what she saw flickering by our window—tobacco fields, backyard clotheslines, wandering dogs.
As we pulled into the Columbia station, I saw three women standing together on the platform, their graceful necks stretching upward, looking with hope toward the flashing windows of the train. One gray-haired woman looked grandmotherly and the two younger ones looked to be in their early thirties. They reminded me of three black swans opening their wings to welcome us. Pearl number seven was offered as they greeted Veranda and me by encircling us in their arms, hugging and laughing and crying all at the same time.
Since then we have tried to stay in touch each year at Christmas time. Randy’s mother, Della, who died in 2005, would send me a holiday card each year along with two scribbly notes on it—one from her and one from Veranda. Our shared news has not always been good: loss and grief, two divorces, an eviction, several moves, one arrest, a crippling traffic accident, and more than a few broken promises. For two years I received no word at all from Veranda as she fell into the hell realms of cocaine addiction in her late teenage years.
In 2009, twenty-four years after that train trip to South Carolina, I received a formal invitation to the graduation from medical school of Dr. Veranda Johns. She was now qualified to practice as an infectious disease specialist. “My father and I both want you to be there,” she wrote me. Pearl number eight.
Veranda and her two aunts, Randy’s sisters, met me at the Columbia airport. Her almond eyes and long eyelashes were now slightly hidden behind studious-looking eyeglass frames. But her smile was unmistakably just like her father’s. For the next two days, I was a guest and a family member in what felt like sacred territory, a grand celebration of relatives, neighbors and friends, young and old. Tables, decorated with roses and candles, overflowed with meats and casseroles, fresh breads, fried okra, sweet potato and apple pie, Jell-O salads and homemade chocolate drizzle cake.
This gathering was the result of a holy succession of kindnesses. Connected through the life of one man—a part-time heroin addict and street musician, a father who envisioned in his will a better life for his daughter—we were all now joined by this child’s realization of a beautiful life of her own—the life her father had wished for her. This was the offering of Pearl number nine.
The list of pearls continues in my life to this very day. Great kindness has been extended to me so often in this lifetime—especially when I have fallen down, screwed up, made bad decisions, acted like a total jerk, or gotten lost just when I thought I knew “the way.” So many helpers have appeared—waiting for me like those three black swans—known and unknown angels who have met me as I arrived in various stations in my life.
Writing down these memories focuses me again on the power of saying “yes” to what is scary and difficult and mysterious, to the practice of receiving and offering pearls.