Gifts at Christmas

I have often worked on Christmas Day in hospital or the hospice when I was nursing. It was an active choice to be there on a day which offered something different to the usual routine. Generally it would be quieter on the wards, less staff, less busyness and doing and more joy, more banter, more laughter. Patients would have family visiting and there would be a party atmosphere. I liked the intention of us working around the patients rather than expecting them to work around the routine and the system which was often one of the downsides and struggles I had with working in a such a structured and hierarchical organisation. Some of the true essence of Christmas enveloped us and there was an openness and kindness and a feeling of generosity of spirit that wasn’t always there on a regular day.

In recent years I’ve spent happy, self indulgent and social Christmases with friends and family and often just me and David who batten down the hatches and retreat in to our own special cocoon. We have also chosen to spend time abroad around this time of year so I am used to spending Christmas and New Year in other countries and cultures which I have always enjoyed and it has been a good experience here too. It is a national holiday in India despite only 2% of the population being Christians … mind you this does equate to 24 million people! In the community they have a secular policy, all religions are welcome but none are given precedence and there is no overt worship of any of sort. So, it was business as usual. As a nod to being festive we took bags of sweets in to our workplaces to share around, but I think most people were a bit bewildered as to why we should be sharing sweets on this day and not another! Within the group it felt no different to any other day as there is a background atmosphere and intent to treat people kindly and with respect and generosity, all the sentiments we would hope to experience on Christmas Day. There is also a comradeship and shared agenda of being here together “in service” to others as well as nourishing ourselves with companionship, meditation and rest. Some described it as the perfect recipe for Christmas Day.

Now I’m no longer working as a nurse on the wards I have often thought of volunteering my time on Christmas Day to a “good cause”, but this has never developed in to action so it’s been a great opportunity here to try it out. It wasn’t an easy day, but then every day here has presented some sort of challenge and food for thought, so it was no different in that, but somehow it was more poignant because of the associations of the day.

Baba Amte and his friends were fond of creating mottos to help explain the work of Anandwan and one is “From Sympathy to Empathy”. Practising empathy has been a daily occurrence and I needed to step up to the mark again today. After my afternoon stint at the old people’s home I walked past the hospital where I work in the morning and spontaneously decided to pop in for a quick visit. Whilst on the men’s ward some of the patients beckoned me over to one elderly gentleman saying “malish, malish”, meaning “massage, massage”. Through various bits of Hindi and English and lots of charades I understood he had fallen and hurt his left side. He was lying on his bed, still and gently moaning. When I sat next to him he turned and looked at me with such distress and turmoil and took hold of his left arm with his right hand, lifted it and then let it go. It dropped to the bed. He then showed me how he could open and close his right hand but not his left. He was able to speak and had no other obvious injury but it soon became clear that he had had a stroke and not just bruising from a fall. I got confirmation of this from the staff but they didn’t seem to be doing anything at the time to offer any care or treatment. He was upset and confused and scared and lying in wet clothes on a wet bed. I had very little information and because of the language barrier I couldn’t get any. I felt thwarted in my efforts to help. Was someone coming to assist him, did he have a wife who would visit, had he refused help, should I do something, was it appropriate with me being a woman to help bathe him, where were his fresh clothes, did he have any? So, I did what I could, I did what I knew how to do. I helped him get more comfortable, covered the damp mattress with a cloth and I massaged him, gently talking and singing to him to soothe him. But how could I empathise with this man who was so much older, who comes from a different culture and has lived such a different life to mine? Yet there were things we shared. I knew what it was like to feel alone and afraid, to be unsure and to not know what the future holds. I reached out and cupped his face in my hands and looked in to his old, rheumy eyes and tried to convey some of this – my care and my empathy – to him; this shared humanity. In response he brought his right hand to his heart then to his lips to kiss and then reached out to hold my hands. It was a fleeting moment in an atmosphere of distress and disquiet, but it was a connection that deeply touched me. I left feeling sad and angry and helpless, questioning what more I could have done, did I do enough, what would happen next? I struggled with these feelings but kept returning to that brief heartfelt connection and the hope that in this exchange of gifts on Christmas Day – my gift of compassion to him and his gift to me of his willingness to trust and receive – that this could be enough for us both.

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