From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Ward C, Room 842

The gray building sat on a pile of dirty snow in front of a gray sky. I knew that the dismal exterior was a match for the interior. My illness had brought me here many times before as a patient, desperate and in despair. This hospital was supposed to bring hope to those who suffered. Some found that hope and went home again; some never did. They would lie in their beds living, yet lifeless, cut off from the world, waiting to die.

Yes, I know it’s true everyone dies. Why some must die and yet remain here . . . I don’t know. Day after day, year after year, lying in one spot, not doing, seeing, hearing, touching or loving.

When I was a patient here, sometimes very late at night I would hear the crying—long, low, wailing sounds, lonely and lost. Down the highly polished empty hallways they came and slid under the doors to be heard by those of us who slept lightly. How we prayed that we would never find ourselves on Ward C, waiting to finally, hopefully die.

Now I was going back not as a patient but to visit others as a volunteer. The Bible says: “He comforts us in all our afflictions and thus enables us to comfort those who are in trouble, with the same consolation we have received from him.”

With determination I headed toward the door.

My wheelchair crunched and slid in the snow as I made my way down the ramp into the basement of the building.

My hair, once thick, had thinned from the medication; it no longer offered protection from the cold. My hands burned as they pushed on the metal rims of my wheelchair now covered with snow. I reached for the door, and my wet hand stuck to the metal door handle as I struggled to get inside.

Usually I waited for someone to take me places, but I wanted to try to be more independent, more in control of my own life. Now coming here, I wasn’t so sure. This wasn’t easy, but I was here—I was already inside.

I found the volunteer office; I was a few minutes early so I waited in the hall, up against the wall, staying out of the way, as I had been taught to do when I lived here.

I said a prayer and asked God to give me the strength that I needed to do what I was asked, whatever I could. I whispered, “Your servant, my Lord, let me help. In your eyes I’m still whole; in my heart I’m still whole.”

I could hear voices from behind the door. “She wants to volunteer to visit patients,” one voice said.

“I really don’t see how she could help,” said another.

“Well, I don’t think that we can put her with anyone who matters; she’s not very strong. If she gets sick after starting with a patient, it could really mess up the schedule. Anyway, I doubt that she will stay with this very long; disabled people generally tend to be unreliable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not their fault, but she’s not just disabled, she’s sick as well.”

“I understand the problem,” said the second voice. “I had a terrible flu all last week, but I guess we can’t turn her away. How about we give her old Mr. Cramer—he has no one. I don’t think he’ll last too much longer, and no one else wants to visit him anyway. It wouldn’t be kind of us to turn her away. You know she’s fairly smart for someone in a wheelchair.”

The door began to open. I grabbed a book from my bag and pretended to read. A gray skirt stood in front of me. I looked up; she looked down. I looked at her thick curly hair; she looked at my leg braces.

“Hello, Chris, how nice of you to come,” she said sweetly, giving me her best patronizing smile. “I have someone very special for you to visit with—Mr. Cramer, a stroke patient. He hasn’t exactly asked for a visitor because he can’t talk, but he can make eye contact from time to time. It appears he has no family or friends. I know he’ll just love having you visit. I’ll leave the amount of time you wish to spend with him up to you; it’s Ward C, Room 842. I’ve really got to run . . . bye for now dear . . . keep in touch.” Her high heels clattered off down the hall, taking her with them.

I hadn’t said a word. I put away my book. Frightened, I slowly started for Ward C.

I entered the ward to look for Mr. Cramer; his name was at the foot of his bed. The bed was pushed right into the corner. All the necessary hospital paraphernalia was there, nothing I hadn’t seen before.

I looked at the man. His hair was a yellow-gray-white, his eyes pale gray, staring and unblinking. The stroke had decimated his face. Who would ever know what he once looked like? His mouth twisted and fell in. Either he had no false teeth, or they couldn’t or wouldn’t put them in. One contorted hand lay on the covers, frozen in a gesture of supplication, a stark reminder of an internal battle fought and lost. The other hand lay on his chest, beautiful and whole, untouched.

I knew there was not much chance of there being any of life’s awareness left in Mr. Cramer, but . . . perhaps . . . maybe . . .

I thought, What if he is trapped in there all alone, living in a nightmare of despair? What if . . .

“My Lord, your servant,“ I whispered, as I wheeled closer to the head of the bed. Gently I stroked his cheek.

The words began to come, and softly I began to speak.

“Mr. Cramer, I’m Chris, and I’m here to love you. I am going to hold your hands, kiss your cheek and comb your hair. I’m going to tell you about everything I know, and when that’s all used up, I’ll make up what I don’t know.

Now that should be interesting. I will tell you about all my joys and all my sorrows. And when we get better, we’ll climb to the top of the highest hill we can find and scatter wildflowers in the wind. Or how about we make passionate love in the flower bed right out in front of the hospital . . .

“Mr. Cramer, I know you’re in there.”

The pale gray eyes began to move. They slid sideways, found mine and held. I knew at that moment that Mr. Cramer was there. I could feel his sorrow. A tear ran down his cheek. I wiped it gently with my finger, and it ran into my hand. The eyes slowly closed; the breathing stopped. I felt a quiet and tender peacefulness. His soul passed through mine, and he was gone. I kissed the tear in my hand.

“Mr. Cramer,” I said, “you are free now.”

I slowly wheeled to the nurse’s station and told them Mr. Cramer was dead. I would come back here tomorrow. I would try again.

“Dear God,” I asked, “was I just in time or was I too late?”

Sarah Ainslie

“Do they need any help at Toys ‘R’ Us?”

Reprinted by permission of Steve Smeltzer.

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