Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Taking Up the Slack

She wore a flower-print, full –body apron over her dress; her ample bosom and round belly packaged neatly for a day’s work at the hospital. Her gray hair was unruly and she was forever reaching up to brush wisps away from her face. She stayed busy working from ten in the morning to four in the afternoon, pushing the gift and candy cart from floor to floor. Audrey was a volunteer, a Gray Lady. She trained new volunteers, watched them come and go. She was like a steady river of refreshment for patients, families, staff and visitors. Everyone felt noticed, appreciated and cared for in Audrey’s line of work. Her mission was to make the day a little better for people inside the hospital walls.

I worked the evening shift as charge nurse on the psychiatric unit. Audrey stopped by the nurses’ station as we were taking report, one set of nursing staff leaving and handing off information to the next: test results, progress updates and medication changes from the day. “Anybody want candy here?” Money was quickly exchanged for chocolate bars, gum, and peppermints. “Anybody want a prayer?” The two questions were standard with Audrey. And our answer was always the same. “We all need it.” Audrey reached for our hands and we connected in a circle while she invited something and someone really helpful and healing to come on our unit and into our work. And then Audrey moved along because there were so many more units to visit, so much candy to be sold, so many prayers to be offered.

Audrey’s son, Bill, had been the organist at their church for many years. People kidded him about being a bachelor. “When are you going to make some girl a lucky lady?” Church men used to pat Bill on the back and chuckle. Bill would smile his broad and contagious smile. “Isn’t he the sweetest thing ever?” Church ladies cooed over Bill and his charming manners, his music and the excellent dishes he brought to potluck dinners. Bill died of pneumonia in 1988 and the church council refused to let the family hold his funeral inside the church. Word got out that Bill’s pneumonia was a result of AIDS and the church people insisted that bringing Bill’s dead body into the sanctuary would jeopardize the health of the entire congregation. In spite of better advice from local doctors, the minds of the church people were set. Audrey and her husband, Dan, received guests at the funeral home. Few people attended and most of the men who came to the funeral were strangers to Audrey and Dan. Audrey made it her business to meet and get to know Bill’s friends after her son was gone and buried. She had met his community of gay friends but now, with Bill's death, they meant so much more to the grieving mother.

Audrey stopped going to church not just because of the hurt she felt about the rejection of her son but also because Audrey’s husband developed Alzheimer’s disease. Most of her time was spent caring for a grown man who could no longer care for himself. Bill’s friends, a small group of gay men, stood by Audrey during the ten years that Alzheimer’s disease robbed her husband of his memories, his strength, and his dignity. Tony, the jewelry store owner, drove her to doctor’s appointments. Jay and Timothy, who owned the Don’t Tell Mama Bar, sat with Dan while Audrey had her hair fixed on Saturday mornings at the Kut & Kurl. Chris came over and played Bill’s piano just to entertain Audrey and Dan in their home. Keith cooked for them on weekends and put things in the freezer for later in the week. When Dan passed away Audrey didn’t even consider having his service at the church where she and her husband had been baptized and married. Audrey wanted the funeral to be in a place where her new friends would be welcome and comfortable. The service was held in a gay bar and half the town declared that Audrey had lost her mind.

And then she came to the hospital and took training to be a Gray Lady. Day after day Audrey pushed her gift and candy cart from floor to floor. She watched the people in the halls and in the waiting rooms. She listened when people needed to talk. One day Audrey stopped by the hospital cafeteria where I was taking a break. She caught me wearing worries on my face. I was almost ready to come out of the closet but I recognized how much that decision would cost me. I would have to move away, to a larger city. The people in this small town would never understand. I told Audrey my story and she told me her story. Then Audrey prayed one of her beautiful and brief prayers for me. I thanked Audrey for all of her prayers, for her commitment and her faith. “Well, I can see that the church no longer knows how to be the church, Honey. So I just try to take up the slack.” I took my coffee and went back upstairs, went back to work. I felt like I had truly been to church.