The Gentling Power of Our Presence
Two years ago when I was in New York City, my friend Sharon was also in town. We were friends who both lived in Santa Fe. But Sharon ran a company in the city, and she regularly commuted between New York and Santa Fe. We had never been in New York together at the same time, so we decided to indulge in a "power dinner" on her turf. We caught up, told stories, and shared an exquisite meal. We had a lovely New York evening.
The next night I got a desperate message at my hotel from Sharon's husband, Jim. I immediately called him, and he said Sharon was in the emergency room, in a New York hospital. His beloved wife, on the other side of the country, was alone in a strange place. There was no way he could get there soon, and I felt the ache in his heart. Would I would mind calling the hospital to find out how she was, maybe speak with her? he asked.
I said I would do no such thing - but I would catch a cab that would get me there in ten minutes. He protested that I didn't need to do that, but I insisted I would feel much worse if I didn't go. I wanted to see her in person, feel how she was, talk to those who were caring for her, and get a sense of her well-being. I told Jim I would call him back as soon as I knew anything.
Sharon and I had been friends for years. Like Jim, I needed to be
with her. To see her, hear her voice, watch her eyes, stay close. Once in her company, I would know right away if she was doing well or badly. Was she truly in danger? Was she essentially all right? Or - the most likely option - whatever was happening, would Sharon keep it all a secret, showing her "I'm a strong woman who can handle anything" face to everyone around her.
Sharon had left a meeting in mid-town Manhattan around 3pm. As she walked out of the building, she suddenly collapsed on the sidewalk, with no warning. Had she fainted? Was it a stroke, or worse? People carried her back into the building, called 911, and an ambulance rushed her uptown to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.
In the taxi, I called the hospital. I spoke with Sharon, who insisted I not come see her. It wasn't necessary, it was too much trouble, she was fine, she didn't need help, Besides, they were just about to discharge her. It would be a waste of my time. An unnecessary late night trip, taking me out of my way, for no good reason.
Her protests reassured me. If she was feeling that feisty already, she was probably going to be OK.
I reached the E.R., which was noisy and crowded. I found Sharon, lying down, attached to a machine that monitored her blood pressure, her pulse, her blood oxygen levels - all in real time. Every five minutes the machine posted her most recent numbers at the top of a list that scrolled down the screen.
I noted to myself that 30 minutes before I called, her blood pressure was 147 /117. After I called her, but before I arrived, her numbers had dropped to 132/105.
I sat in a chair a few feet away from where she lay in bed. Sharon was not a shy person. But I knew she felt tender, vulnerable. Exposed. I asked about her day, what she remembered, how she was feeling. I glanced at the monitor. Still hovering around 130/100.
I moved my chair a little closer. "Were you scared?" I asked.
She was quiet for a time. Sharon is not prone to public displays of emotion. She was not going to cry.
"Maybe," she offered, tentatively. "Maybe a little. But I feel like I was in a fog. It all happened so fast."
We sat quietly. "Do they know why you fainted? Did they do any tests?"
"They think I was dehydrated. I probably hadn't had much water all day." It was one of those hot, humid summer days in New York. A punishing heat with no respite. Because New York is a walking city, most people are outdoors a good deal of the time. Sharon had not taken this into account. Anyway, she would have assumed she could tough it out.
"So, nothing else?"
"No, they say I just need to rest a while, and drink fluids. They have me hooked up to that thing." There was a water and a saline drip slowly adding water to her system.
We spoke for a while about how it felt to be taken care of. We laughed about how she was likely a terrible patient. But today, so exhausted, she couldn't put up much of a fight. And, she admitted, the staff had all been very kind, thoughtful, attentive.
The monitor read 119/83 .
"Do you believe them? Do you think it was dehydration?" I imagined her thinking of something they missed, on the way back to her hotel, then whipping herself into a frenzy, for not being thorough, about how were unprofessional they were...
But something about the experience had softened her. Sharon was not an angry person. But she could be tough. Any woman in business in New York had to be tough. But she said, "No, they've been really good with me. I felt completely taken care of the whole time."
The monitor read: 108/60. This woman was as relaxed as any human being could be - in the middle of the night, in a crowded, noisy emergency room in New York City.
From the moment Sharon knew I was coming to see her, her blood pressure had begun to drop. In less than two hours' time, it dropped over forty points. With water, saline, and the restful company of a friend.
Jesus said that whenever two or more are gathered, something sacred, something healing is born in the community created by our being together. Some of the most beautiful moments in our lives only arise in the good company of another.
Solitude, as an intentional practice, can be a nourishing, healing discipline. But only in the company of good friends, family, loved ones, can we feel held, seen, known, or loved in ways that help us remember the best of who we are. When we feel truly seen and known, we feel whole.
After the nurse discharged her, I walked with Sharon to the corner. It was 2am. I hailed a cab, took her to her hotel, and once she was in her room, I felt it was time to go back downtown, to my own hotel, my own bed.
I had called Jim soon after I arrived at the hospital, assuring him she was going to be fine. I could feel the relief of all he had been holding, over the phone, 2000 miles away.
There are times when the simple, unhurried presence of someone who cares for us in the best possible medicine. Sharon's blood pressure dropped in large part because we were together.
I have no illusion that my presence has any special healing powers. Anyone who cared for her would have had the same effect. All alone, in the hospital emergency room, not knowing what was happening, not sure anyone knew where she was - or even who she was - her body felt a tremendous stress. But in the quiet company of someone who knew her, cared for her, loved her, she could feel her way back into the fullness, the strength, the beautiful healthy woman she was.
At the height of the AIDS crisis, I was often at the bedside of young people who were dying. We had no medicine, no treatment, no hope. All we could offer was our presence. Over time, I learned that was more than enough. We could be good company, we could show up.
I learned then, and was reminded that night, of the teaching of the Buddha: "In isolation is the world's great misery."