By Achyut Dutt
Noah’s Ark was patched together by volunteers. The Titanic was built by professionals.
It is a busy life. You’re an immigrant. Canada has taken a while longer getting to know you than you had expected. You have made your bones, started from scratch, working hard at building your career, balancing your family obligations, trying to stay in shape and finding time to pursue the stuff you really love doing – reading and writing.
After ten years in your new home, your life has finally attained a little stability. Financial freedom, cars, kid in private school, his university nest egg building up, vacations, a manageable mortgage, beer and neighbors who no longer look quizzically at the way you are dressed on weekends, in your kurta-pyjama and beer. Did I say beer twice? Must have been an echo.
Yet, there is this emptiness. The years are rolling by and soon you’ll be 60, an age when interesting things stop happening to you when you would like them to. The feeling that you have amounted to very little, that you have made no impact whatsoever on the community at large, has acquired a studio apartment at the back of your mind.
One day you open the letter box and there is nothing in there except for this little bland pamphlet, from an organization called Volunteer West Island and emblazoned over it are the words, ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself, in the service of others’ – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
Usually you gather up all the pamphlets with an annoyed sweep and chuck them in the blue recycle bin in your driveway. North America is pamphlet country.
But this time you pause. You carry this pamphlet home, flipping it over and over between your fingers and fling it on your desk in the den downstairs. It stays there a month, give or take, during which time it gets pushed around the desk by the mouse, the keyboard, the coffee cup, and the bowl of Hill Billy crackers.
Soon the pamphlet begins to age, acquiring a coffee stain here and a beer stain there (lots of beer stains actually), a few quick scribbles, a couple of phone numbers and some hasty interest calculations. North America is credit line, credit card debt, balance transfer, overdue interest country.
You peer at Gandhiji’s words from time to time. You are an agnostic, steadily tilting toward atheism. One day, your elder bro sends you a short piece that the Indian journalist, Mukul Sharma, had posted in his column, The Spiritual Atheist, in The Economic Times. The title of the post is ‘A caring universe’. Here is an excerpt from it:
Does the universe care about what we do or what happens to us or whether we live or die?
If we were to believe hard-core amoral nihilists who say that the universe is just a physical phenomenon with no spiritual component, that events are random and have no deeper meaning or purpose and that there are no consequences to our actions, then the answer is obviously no.
Yet, even if that were true, it certainly doesn’t mean that we can’t care about the universe because, unlike it, we have evolved into sapient creatures that are capable of wonder and love. Meaning, we can infuse it with the same whether it cares or not. In fact, with that kind of involvement on our part, who cares whether it cares or not?
If we were to do that, we could begin living in a basically spiritual universe, ordered by feelings of good and bad; a cosmic order that would, in turn, underpin and motivate all our actions. It would be like a moral force where our actions have definite effects that we carry with us. In this respect, its meaning would then be close to the Hindu concept of Karma.
The notion of a moral universe would also buttress spirituality and form the basis for kindness, compassion, altruism and caring for others. This is because it places a value on human life and living things that goes beyond what seems suitable if we regard people and living things merely as a collection of atoms, and essentially no different from any other unfeeling, non-sentient structures such as rocks soil, mountains or planets.
You have chosen to believe in a moral, caring universe, though somehow, you do not believe that there is a connection between religion and morality. One can be good and caring without having to lean on the crutch of faith. Why, it is now well on its way to be scientifically proven that goodness and caring are actually the work of certain identified neurons in the brain and can actually be tweaked and fiddled with, through a fast emerging science known as neuroscience. It is a matter of time before a sociopath can actually be converted into a deeply caring individual (and vice versa of course), through treatment.
Back to you now and one day, pre-Christmas, on your way to work, there is this radio program calling for volunteers at St Anne’s, the Military Veterans’ hospital, a long-term (end-of-life) care facility, to help the 90+ year old war veterans through the especially crushing loneliness of the Christmas holidays. Numerous activities are planned for the seniors in order to keep them occupied and not dwell upon why even their own don’t find the time to visit them.
‘I have nothing special planned this Christmas,’ you say to yourself. You get to your den and look around for that pamphlet. It has gotten so badly crumpled that you can barely read it. You call the number and one Ms Grenville, head of Volunteer Services at St. Anne’s, answers. The 50% discount at the cafeteria makes up your mind.
You fill out a form and the RCMP checks you out. It takes another week for you to become a volunteer, with your own volunteer’s badge and ID. You are now one of the 12.5 million registered Canadians, that is 1 in 3 Canadians, the second largest volunteer population density after the Dutch.
The words of a 69 year old Albanian nun, standing in front of the world and accepting its highest honor, the Nobel Peace Price, Oslo 1979, are at the back of your mind – ‘everyday, each of us goes out on the Jericho road.’ You are a registered traveler on the Jericho road now and you are scheduled to travel that road for two hours every Wednesday.
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your redemption is tied up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lill Watson, American aboriginal activist to all wannabe volunteers
Six months have slipped by at St. Anne’s and that anguish that you constantly felt before, at a meaningless wasted life, has vanished. In these six months, you have been around a good deal of illness and even death. Witnessing the challenges residents face on a daily basis has helped you appreciate your own life all the more. Besides that, volunteering in a hospital has connected you with many like-minded people, volunteers like you, men and women trying to find fulfillment. You have formed personal bonds with nurses, doctors and, of course, the residents and it has been gratifying. You have been treated with a different kind of respect that is reserved for those who offer a helping hand.
Here’s what you do at St. Anne’s. You come in straight from work around 6pm. It is a sprawling complex which is easy to get lost in. You did get lost trying to find the employees’ entrance the first time, but only that one time.
You swipe your card through and get straight to Volunteer Services, which is this tiny room with a closet where volunteers hang their coats and store their backpacks and stuff. You stoop and fill in your attendance in the file that is always lying open on this table.
After you sign in you straighten and on the wall right in front are these two white boards, both having names scribbled on them. One is always full of names with numbers written next to them. Like ‘Bernard Bonneville (805) – Bingo’ or ‘Martin Beauregard (904) – Cribbage’ and so on.
If the name is crossed out it means another volunteer has come in ahead of you and taken charge of that resident. The number beside the name is the room number, 805 – Room 5 in the 8th floor. If it is Mr. Bonneville, it is his Bingo evening and you have to proceed to his room, take charge of him, wheel him down on his wheelchair to the Bingo hall and take him back to his room, after. That’s the way it works.
Your conduct with the resident in your charge is governed essentially by a few ground rules and taboos that Ms Grenville warned you about, right at the start…
‘Almost all the residents are veterans of WW2 or the Korean War. Never talk about the war unless the resident opens the subject. Latent PTSD is a real issue and many of these 90+ year olds are actually afflicted with it and have never known it. So, please, don’t be a shmuck and rekindle painful memories. If you plan to blog on war stories, it shall have to wait till the resident opens up on his own.’
‘Do not ask about a resident’s personal life unless he starts talking about it first. Most times he has no family that cares. Wife long gone, siblings probably long dead too, children grown, with no time to visit, the desire to catch just a glimpse of them and the grandkids, all that yearning and the abandonment, can be crippling.’
‘Smile and be positive, sunny and cheerful when talking to them. They crave that. Most have been enlisted men and then, after the war, blue collar workers. They love to listen to raunchy humor, no matter how old they get. Bring along a stock of dirty jokes if you want to brighten up their evenings.’
‘Do not get emotionally attached to a resident. Most likely he will not live long and the separation can be very painful. Do not take a resident home or out on a drive with you. If anything happens, you will be held responsible. The hospital does not cover the costs and neither does your own insurance.’
‘Some of the residents, especially the lonelier ones, will try to show their gratitude because you chose to spend time with them. They might offer money as a tip or reward. Do not accept it. Remember that you are a volunteer and you are here because you want to find meaning in your own life.’
‘If you promised a resident you would visit him on a particular day, make damned sure that you keep that date. You have no idea how much they look forward to your visit and how despondent a resident can get if you don’t turn up. Besides it may be the last you see of him.’
‘Do not try to contact the resident’s family under any circumstances, even if he urges you to. His family may not welcome the contact. Call the nurse in charge of the floor and let her deal with it.’
“When we feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean and won’t make any difference at all, we must remember that the ocean would be less if that drop was missing.” – Mother Theresa
Now let’s get to the other white board. The other board has a shorter list, with two, maybe three names, on it. It has reddish orange poppies all around it. Sometimes there are flowers, roses, and cards stuck behind it. On top is written ‘Décédé la semaine dernière.’ Once in a while, you recognize a name. Today there is one you immediately recognize and stare at in disbelief – Ron Nimitz, Corporal (Retd).
Once in a while, the no-emotional-attachment rule is fated to be broken, as in the case of Ron, a 96-year old ex-sapper. He was a dear little man whom you loved spending time with. You looked forward to seeing him more than he did you. Full of mischief, Ron raised hell at Bingo. “Sonuva bitch! I’ll never get the numbers! What the f—k am I doon here?” “Hey, get lost, chump, that’s my seat.” “Oh baby, come n light mah fayah.” The last one to Rosy, a 91-year old woman who screams back, “You shut your foul mouth, you dirty old man! Sally (Rosy’s volunteer minder), come here! Move me to another table, will you?”
You race through the corridor and dive into an elevator that is about to go up. You get off at the 6th floor and hurry down the short distance past the nurses’ station to Ron Nimitz’s door. It is open. The room is empty, completely sanitized, and ready to take in the next vet. The wall above his bed is bare. His beloved war photos, of his regiment and his buddies, grinning, legs dangling over the mud skirt of an M4 Sherman tank and all those family collages are gone. It is almost as if he had been just a figment of your imagination.
You trudge back down, to the first white board. No one has picked up David Boucherville, 92, yet and you know how much he loves his Bingo. Your eyes light up. Dave Boucherville and his Alzheimer’s make friends with you all over again, every time. Every ten minutes or so, Dave asks the same question as he sizes you up suspiciously, “You’re not Cheryl? Where’s Cheryl? Has she come home yet?” You have been taught by the nurses to answer with a cheerful tone, as if you heard him ask that question for the very first time, “Oh she’ll be here in a half hour.” You head for the elevators.
There is a spring in your step.
Achyut Dutt, 59, builds jet engines at Pratt and Whitney Canada. He writes under the pseudonym ‘spunkybong’ and has a blog at spunkybong.com.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Inland Labor Migration in India” (Edited by Soma Chatterjee, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada) & “Debating the Disability Law in India” (Edited by Nandini Ghosh, IDSK, Kolkata & Shilpaa Anand, MANUU, Hyderabad).