Friday, April 27, 2018

Compassion in Uncertainty: An MRI & an Excellent Friend

          My dear friend Marissa is one of those people who routinely says, "Let me know if you need anything," and means it with her whole heart. For her, this phrase is a practical call to action rather than an empty attempt at consolation. She also happens to be a genius who gives excellent advice and is on her way to becoming an amazing surgeon one day. When I found out several weeks ago that there was another jaw MRI in my future, I briefly pondered who I could ask to accompany me to the hospital, and she was the first person who came to mind. In a great act of generosity, especially considering how boring and time-consuming it is to go with someone to a lengthy medical scan, she eagerly agreed.

Celebrating our last day of classes on the quad!

          We walked together from a coffee shop on our college campus to the children's hospital, crossing a barrier that is minimal in distance but enormous in meaning. Having a friend by my side offered a much-needed piece of consistency between these two worlds that I co-inhabit. In the waiting room, Marissa suggested that we compare our recently completed Taylor Swift brackets, and we half-jokingly argued over songs and albums, a blessed distraction from thinking about my arm, which felt very vulnerable with a hospital bracelet snapped around my wrist and a vein that was about to be sacrificed in the name of IV contrast. It is absolutely impossible to feel like a frail patient when you are debating the musical merit of "I Knew You Were Trouble" with a fellow college student, and so instead I happily felt like a person who was somewhat sick and very much eighteen. Most importantly, I recognized myself as someone who was lucky enough to be sitting next to a friend who was unquestionably okay with both of those things.

          Perhaps this is often what I find myself fundamentally grateful for - friends who express their willingness to be present for the whole of this messy life, marrying my drastically different realities in a way that is awkward and mismatched yet desperately needed. I am grateful for physical therapists who complain about the rose ceremonies on The Bachelor, allowing me to rant about the injustices experienced by Peter and Diggy last season while simultaneously attempting to expand the range of motion in my painful joints. I am grateful for ministers who speak candidly and regularly about illness in the context of religion, bridging the piece of me that loves church with the piece of me that feels endlessly poked and punctured and prodded. I am grateful for classmates who do not bat an eye when I spend the couple of minutes before the lecture starts in tears, because I just left the hospital and am overwhelmed by my own brokenness and have not quite transitioned into a mode of listening and note-taking. I am grateful for doctors who inquire about my class schedule and academic interests, demonstrating that they know that I am more than my list of symptoms and diagnoses. I am grateful for friends who ask, "How are you feeling this week, Rach?" over meals in the dining hall, introducing what often feels like a taboo topic in the setting of a uniquely collegiate space.

          Marissa offered her hand during the IV placement and even came back to the MRI room with me, which was way more generous than I had expected. Because I was transported roughly halfway into the tube, her primary view for an hour consisted of my striped grey socks sticking out of a giant white contraption. She studied for an upcoming exam, using notes free from paper clips or any other metal pieces, while the machine clashed violently around me. The room was horrifically loud, filled with abrupt banging noises that gave voice to the violence I sometimes feel within my bones, and she never once complained.

          Between each set of pictures, when the machine hushed from its intimidating roar to relative silence, Marissa offered kind and genuine words of encouragement. "You can do this, you got this, you're doing great!" she assured me enthusiastically, her voice full of the energy and motivation that I felt like I was lacking entirely. "You're almost done!" she cheerfully reminded me at a particularly uncomfortable point, after a technician placed two stacked blocks in my mouth which forced my jaw open for a set of pictures. When I could hear her, I gave her a thumbs-up. My jaw was packed on all sides by foam and sheets, which pressed down on bothersome earplugs that the technician would not allow me to remove. As a result of all of the material stuffed up against my ears in the name of stabilizing my jaw, I often could not hear what she was saying, but through slight, muffled noises I could recognize that she was speaking. Looking back on it, I probably could have replied verbally, but I was not supposed to move my jaw at all during these intervals and it is an odd sensation to try to speak when you can barely hear and have no concept of how loudly you would need to talk in order to be heard. Even if I did speak, I doubted that I would be able to hear her response. My silent thumbs-up every once in a while, when I found myself capable of picking out her words and soaking up her encouragement, was the best I could think of.

          When we walked out of the children's hospital, I thanked Marissa for accompanying me and for being such a wonderful friend during the entire scan. I talked about feeling the contrast running through my arm, embarking on its chilly course through my circulatory system. "I'm a human being, with veins," I told Marissa in a genuinely baffled tone, as if she were not aware of this obvious reality or did not share it herself. It is humbling, terrifying, and relieving all at once to have the reminder that I am just a compilation of flesh and fragile systems forced upon me. I always leave hospitals hyperaware that I am quite literally just a bunch of mushy pieces and bones wrapped up together.

           Moving away from my self-centered, existential MRI takeaways, I tried to emphasize to Marissa how much her kind words during the scan meant to me, even when the packing around my jaw rendered me unable to understand what she was saying. "Oh, I'm glad! I wasn't sure if you could hear me," she revealed laughingly.

          I laughed too. And then I thought more about her response.

          Marissa was not sure if I could hear her, and yet her uncertainty did not dissuade her from continuing to offer upbeat encouragement. No matter which words I could or could not pick out, her positive tone of voice served as a reminder that she was present. Someone else was in this room with all of the clattering and the clanging and the medical items and the machinery. "Someone else" was not a medical professional assigned to my appointment, but rather a friend, who shared my placement of "All Too Well" as the unequivocal winner of the Taylor Swift bracket and yet could also see the contrast zipping through the short tube of my IV. Having someone in the physical room who could exist in both spaces alongside me was inexplicably comforting.

          When Marissa admitted, "I wasn't sure if you could hear me," I was struck by how deeply compassionate she is, and it occurred to me later on Tuesday night that I want to model my own ways of caring for others in the exact way that she did from several feet away, in a plastic chair with notes about fruit flies in her lap, enclosed for an hour in a boring, clunky MRI room. She was not sure if I could hear her, and yet she persisted in enthusiastic kindness. So much of compassion takes place in spaces of uncertainty, and yet these are the spaces that many of us are the most hesitant to step into. Marissa chose being relentlessly kind over being certain that I was absorbing every single thing she was saying. I hope to do the same.

          Most of the time, I can be confident that my friends hear what I am saying from a sensory standpoint, but sometimes it is hard to know whether or not I am getting through to someone who is hurting. I like to think that we have all at some point stood in front of the locked door of someone's den of tragedy and knocked gently, only to feel like our attempt to enter into their somber space and offer solidarity was ignored, even when they may have genuinely needed the company. Sometimes we need to go away, sometimes we need to break in, and sometimes we need to slip a note under the door. Perhaps most of the time we just need to keep knocking.

          "We're not on the same wavelength," a high school friend once admitted while I was listening dismissively and unresponsively to his attempt to convince me that having to use my wheelchair in between classes was not the end of the world. Through this disarmingly blunt admission, he acknowledged the same distance between hearing and hearing that Marissa was forced to confront on a more practical level. Perhaps I still remember this conversation with my friend because ironically, that statement was the first time during the entire conversation that we were on the same wavelength. I am familiar with the discomfort of reaching out to hurting people in the midst of uncertainty, and yet I also know the discomfort of being the hurting person who will not hear. Sometimes I can feel a friend doing their very best to reach out to me, and I can feel myself not really hearing them, and I know that I am not doing the best thing but cannot convince myself to take a deep breath and listen. Perhaps it is a beautifully human thing that we all exist on both sides of these tense moments.

          I hope that we all choose to be the type of friend that Marissa chose to be to me within the walls of the children's hospital on Tuesday night. I hope that we offer encouragement, compassion, and our simple presence, even when we are not sure if hurting friends can hear us.       

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